After our applications for a State school place were declined a few weeks ago, me and my ex found ourselves confronted with the disheartening prospect of our son falling behind on his education. We decided to reapply to the remaining schools in our borough – the only ones that weren’t ridiculously oversubscribed, for all that may imply. Desperate times, desperate measures.
It was upon visiting one of these schools that our hearts really sank. It just seemed wrong. As lovely as the two kids who showed us around were, the fact that this was an oversized inner city dump where there were no longer any toilet seats just could not be disguised. ‘Perhaps‘, we thought, ‘we’re being a little pompous and unrealistic‘. The truth is that children all over the country attend schools such as this and worse and hopefully turn out fine. The Ofsted report gave it a grade 3. Furthermore, parental involvement is integral to any child’s overall education and we both care too much to let him miss out.
But to send our baby to that place felt like sending a little lamb to slaughter.
(I sound like a mum!)
So we decided it was time to change our tactics and start researching our local private schools with the hope that we might be able to send him somewhere, somehow, someday. They all seemed like shining beacons after what we had seen, and they were all hideously above our budget. And that’s when we stumbled upon Waldorf Steiner.
At £4.055 per annum for their kindergarten (ages 4-7), it was a lot cheaper than any of the other prep schools we had looked at. Still a stretch, but one that we could just about cope with. The memories of the inner city dump made the local Steiner school’s website seem a wholesome and rustic idyll. But upon closer inspection we began to realise that this was not your average school, nor your average educational ethos. Something about it reminded me of what I’ve heard so far about the Montessori method, but Steiner seems to go beyond that. Thus began our investigation.
The Waldorf Steiner method of education was formulated by Rudolf Steiner, according to his personal philosophy of Anthroposophy. It began when a friend of Steiner’s asked him to open a visionary school for the children of the workers at the Waldorf cigarette factory in 1919. You can find more about Steiner’s life and beliefs here, as I cannot pretend to have any expertise on the matter.
ANTHROPOSOPHY AT FIRST SIGHT:
Anthroposophy was not a completely alien concept to me as my best friend in Brazil and her husband have been very keen to bring up their 5 year old daughter according to some of its teachings. Anthroposophy means, literally, ‘wisdom of the human being’.
Well, I’m sure I can’t claim to be that wise because I found it all a bit radical and puzzling. Their daughter was not allowed any plastic or electronic toys; television and computers were forbidden; even recorded music was a no-no. When I landed in Rio with a 9 month old baby I felt slightly intimidated by this determination to occlude modern living. My son loved toys with flashing lights and music and I really couldn’t see how they could be so sure it was harmful. He was one of the happiest, most settled babies I have ever known —and I am not saying that just because I am his mum.
On my last visit to Brazil it was clear that they had had to relax their grip; financial and social constraints meant that raising their kid in an exclusively anthroposophical way became a bit of a nightmare — I think it also partly contributed to their break up last year. Clearly all this gave me a negative bias toward this philosophy, but I would be lying if I said I knew enough about it to refute it. All I am saying is that it probably didn’t come to me in the best light.
A HOLISTIC EDUCATION:
Nevertheless I can still see why an anthroposophical approach to education is appealing, particularly in the early years, which is the category my son falls into. It is certainly more caring and constructive than I imagine the nightmare State school could be. At best, it could help my child come on leaps and bounds in his personal development, for all that might represent. At worst, at this age, it wouldn’t harm him. I like the idea of play-based early learning; and I understand this is much of what he’d be doing at a State nursery at reception class – if he ever got into a decent one. My biggest concern over our lack of State school offers is that he would miss out on social interaction and structured activity if he was forced to spend the next year alone, particularly with mother dearest over here. Part of education is learning to be a social and moral being too and I like the Steiner focus on this aspect.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Steiner method is caring and that my son would have plenty of fun and human interaction — What else can I expect at the age of four? At a glance, kindergarten seeks to develop the senses through different kinds of play, giving the children a fair bit of autonomy with regards to their own development. Parents of young children see new milestones being reached on a daily basis and supporting these achievements makes a lot of sense. The focus on exciting children’s natural curiosity and satisfying their instinctive desire for learning is something you don’t hear often on the national curriculum. This was all interesting so I began to ask around.
FLOODED WITH FEEDBACK:
I must have been living in a hole all my life. As soon as I mentioned Steiner, people started coming out of the woodwork with their experiences and opinions. The overwhelming majority used adjectives such as ‘well-rounded’, ‘creative’, ‘free-thinking’, ‘academic’ and ‘social’ to describe Steiner kids. The educational methods were perceived as ‘effective’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘caring’, if a bit ‘too idealistic’ and lacking in technology. At university level, a broad and unconventional approach would set Steiner children apart as scholars too. However, another friend related that some of her own Steiner friends suffered breakdowns in their late teens because they found it difficult to adapt when the ‘real world isn’t all nice and reassuring, and doesn’t value individuality or creativity’. This same friend mirrored my own concerns when she said ‘In theory, I am completely pro-Steiner philosophy, but it’s worth thinking that school needs to prepare kids for life in the real world’.
The huge response I had on the subject is one of the reasons I decided to write this all down in blog format. This has been very thought provoking on several levels, hence the length of this post and my decision to break it up into smaller segments. There is certainly a lot to be discussed and I can only hope to scratch the surface here. My realist and idealist sides have been struggling against one another. The next step in untangling what I’d heard through the grapevine was to visit the school itself…
To be continued…