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Steiner Schools – a letter to my MP

October 20, 2013

Occasionally I manage to drag myself away from the car-crash spectacle of right-wing politics in the US long enough to worry about what’s going on in the UK. And what’s going on seems to include the Free Schools policy, a spiffing wheeze promoted by the Government to free kids from the state-sanctioned tyranny of having to learn about observable reality from people who are competent, and instead to allow them to be taught by anyone who fancies having a go at it. The less people know, the less they have to worry about, right?

A number of interesting cases seem to be emerging from the woodwork – there’s the Al-Madinah Islamic school in Derbyshire which fell dramatically foul of Ofsted recently, and the Jewish Yesodey Hatorah girls’ school was caught censoring exam questions on evolution (in addition to promoting fairly low expectations of its pupils’ career prospects).

But, one might argue, we know that religious schools are going to be like that – their anti-science and misogynistic tendencies are well documented, we can watch out for it and take steps to tackle it. Far more insidious are Steiner Schools – schools run by devotees of the mysterious personality cult of Rudolf Steiner. And, thanks to the Free Schools policies, a few Steiner Free Schools are springing up. Following a talk from Andy Lewis of The Quackometer at my local Skeptics in the Pub meeting in which he talked about the dangers posed by these schools, I felt motivated to put finger to keyboard and write to my MP about it.

The letter ran:

I recently attended a talk given by the blogger Andy Lewis about Steiner Schools – schools inspired by the beliefs of the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner and, thanks to the coalition’s “free schools” policy, now being funded by the taxpayer. During his talk, it became apparent that there are a number of serious questions that ought to be asked of these establishments before they are allowed to received public funding. Therefore, although this is not a constituency matter, I would like to raise with you my concerns, as a taxpayer, and I would be grateful if you would pass them on to the Department for Education.

The charge sheet against these schools is quite lengthy (two links for further reading are provided at the end), but my main worries are these:

1) These schools are based on Steiner’s doctrine of “anthroposophy”, a mystical and spiritual movement with unpleasant racist connotations (the Aryan as the pinnacle of humanity, disabled people as inferior). Modern Steinerists insist that the racist element is no longer part of Steinerism, but this should have rung warning bells at the DfE – was anyone responsible for vetting the ethos of free schools, and was this aspect of anthroposophy investigated?

2) Steiner’s ideas about education were quite unorthodox. For example, he claimed that children were not “spiritually” ready to learn to read until their adult teeth have appeared – “reading and writing as we have them today are really not suited to the human being till a later age – the eleventh or twelfth year – and the more a child is blessed with not being able to read and write well before this age, the better it is for the later years of life”. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence to support this claim, indeed it seems quite likely that children would be held back and damaged by not being taught to read and write until this age. I would like to know what steps has the DfE taken to ensure that all teaching at Steiner schools is taking place in accordance with  the best educational practices as they are currently understood.

3) The last Labour government set up the School Inspection Service, partly at the behest of private Steiner schools and others, in order to provide an inspection regime better suited to their “special character”. A number of people working for the SIS have close connections with the Steiner movement. Is the DfE satisfied that the existing Steiner schools are being inspected adequately? Are they under pressure from the free Steiner schools to allow them to join the same inspection regime?

4) A French whistleblower, Grégoire Perra, reported that “…in these schools, misleading state officials is commonplace. For example, I witnessed that, when a teacher is scheduled to be inspected in class, s/he will commonly be replaced by another teacher who has the [necessary] skills or qualifications”. Is the DfE satisfied that such subterfuge could not happen here?

5) The Steiner philosophy makes claims about the natural world which are demonstrably untrue – for example, that the heart is not a pump but is driven by the blood surging around the body propelled by a cosmic force. It casts doubt on well established pieces of scientific knowledge such as the atomic theory of matter (claiming, absurdly, that homeopathy poses a challenge to it) and evolution by natural selection. As a man with a scientific background, it pains me greatly to see scientific discoveries misrepresented and fraudulently discredited because they are seen as a threat to some belief system or other. I understand that your background is in engineering, and I am sure you will appreciate the importance of ensuring children have a sound scientific understanding of the world, in order to promote Britain’s tradition of scientific and technological achievement. I would like to know if the DfE is satisfied that the science teaching taking place at Steiner schools (both free and private) is of a high standard, uncontaminated by the pseudoscientific beliefs of anthroposophy.

To sum up, I am concerned that a secretive organisation with worrisome occult and pseudoscientific connections is being allowed to educate children at our expense. I do not know if this is because the DfE is ignorant of the nature of this organisation, or is cognisant of it but unconcerned, but neither possibility inspires confidence. I firmly believe that the multiple, serious and consistent criticisms of Steiner schools provide a strong case for investigating their activities more thoroughly.

If you could make the Department for Education aware of my concerns, it would be much appreciated.

There are many sources of information on the web about Steiner schools,
but good starting points are:

1) “What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner Schools” from the Quackometer (Andy Lewis’ well-respected blog) – http://bit.ly/15bXLNC

2) “The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense” from DC’s Improbable Science –
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3528

And I received a response, the relevant bit of which is:

Thank you for getting in contact with me regarding the Steiner free schools that are being set up across the country.

I appreciate your concerns about these schools, however, the Department for Education has a robust set of criteria against which all proposals must be measured. These include providing a highly quality education for students and a balanced curriculum.

The Department for Education is already looking closely at the issues that have been raised about the Steiner free schools, and as such I do not believe it is necessary to write to Ministers at this time. However I will your views in mind and continue to monitor this situation carefully.

So that seems reasonably positive. I’m not sure if I should respond asking for further details of what the DfE is doing around these issues – any suggestions?

Another issue which I probably ought to have mentioned is that Steiner schools seem to have form when it comes to a) bullying of pupils within the school and b) covering up of the same / blaming the victims. Here’s an extensively documented case from New Zealand, a Mumsnet discussion about a Steiner school in Scotland, and some words from a former Steiner / Waldorf parent. While it’s true that some parents report positive experiences of these schools, these reports of nastiness beneath the surface surely add weight to the case for investigating their activities more closely.

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One comment

  1. That looks like a standard MP’s reply, to avoid rocking any boats. I would ask for evidence to support the “looking closely at the issues ” claim. Looking is not the same as taking decisive action.



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