Penney Hames - Daily Telegraph
IT'S 8.10am and the pupils of the Michael Hall School in the heart of Sussex are already at work. This is a Steiner Waldorf school and, as is always the case, there's a lot of living and learning to experience, so it's an early start for the 530 pupils.
It is odd that so few people have heard about Steiner-Waldorf schools because they are the fastest growing alternative educational system in the world. There are 26 schools in the UK and Ireland and more than 800 worldwide.
After years of talks, it was announced a few weeks ago that the Government has agreed to a pilot scheme in which funding will be granted to up to three UK Steiner schools (all of which are registered charities) as part of the initiative to increase pluralism in the education system.
A Steiner school differs from other schools on several fronts. It has a broader curriculum - more creative and ethical than the state counterpart - and a different way of integrating subjects, regarding emotional intelligence and creativity as part and parcel of academic pursuits. Pupils also start formal education a year later than other schools and there are no exams and tests until GCSE, AS and A level.
Yet when Steiner pupils take their GCSEs - a year later than state pupils - the pass rate is twice the national average and as good as many other private schools. Eighty to 85 per cent of pupils achieve five grades between A and C, compared to 40-45 per cent for the state system. But it's not the pass rates that inspire most kindergarten parents, it's the lack of pressure and the gentle introduction to an environment structured for learning.
Karen Lari has worked in the state system as a teacher here and abroad. Her daughter, Tess, attends the York Steiner school. "When it came to my own children, I wanted something different," she says. "Things are too rushed. If you're in school learning to read and write at four you miss out. You're only a child once."
At a Steiner school, particularly up to seven, in what's called "the early years", children are encouraged to come to education through their natural inquisitiveness, rather than via teaching and testing. Each day in a Steiner kindergarten children paint using only the three primary colours (pencils are banned) or draw with chunky wax crayons. They play imaginatively, learn to negotiate and respect others, listen to stories told by the teacher and learn through unhurried imitation of their teacher as she cooks, gardens, sings or undertakes other homely activities.
Yet for some parents the pace can seem frustratingly slow. Jonathan Bellows sent his four children to his local Steiner school. Two are still there. "I removed my youngest from the kindergarten after a term," he says, "because she's very bright and, to be honest, she was bored. She wanted to read and write. Now she's at a very good all-girl public school."
Clearly, the system doesn't suit all children or all parents. But is it a handicap for all bright children? Stuart Korth, co-founder and director of the Osteopathic Centre for Children in London, is an ex-Steiner pupil. "I went at 12 and I could do the three Rs extremely well. I was very bright, but also emotionally and creatively inept. I had a marvellous teacher who stretched me by giving me the lead in all the plays, and gave me a lifelong love of art and drama. I sent my children to the school because it was the best education I could buy."
So, for at least some bright children it works by making them more flexible and adventurous. But what about children with a specific language problem? Critics of the Steiner system claim that it handicaps children with dyslexia. "If a dyslexic child isn't allowed to read until he is seven, it's probably only then that a diagnosis can be made. That's too late. He'll have missed a critical period for learning some of the fundamental building blocks of reading," says Dr Peter Congdon, a chartered educational psychologist and director of the Gifted Children's Information Centre in Solihull.
This is a serious problem for Steiner schools, but one which they say they are striving to remedy. In fact, strange as it may seem, parents of mildly dyslexic children often choose a Steiner school after diagnosis because of the more oral, less "literary-centric" curriculum.
But dyslexia encompasses a broad spectrum of difficulties and in spite of special needs provisions, the Steiner system, like the state system, isn't the right place for every child.
It's difficult to describe what goes on at a Steiner school but it's an alluring blend of commitment, creativity, respect, and wonder. There's a joyful passion here, from parents and teachers alike.
"It's incredibly hard work, but you get such a lot back from the children. They really inspire you," says Antoinette Reynolds, a class teacher with year three. Linda Churnside, a teacher with class eight, agrees: "I know that I've learnt more by teaching my class than I did in eight years at a very expensive private school."
The teachers come mostly from the state sector. All are Steiner-trained and all take a substantial pay cut. Salaries range from £6,000 to £16,000. It's not unheard of for Steiner teachers to request help paying bills, but they believe in what they are doing and accept that their salaries are determinedly low so fees can be, too.
Surprisingly, perhaps, not all parents of Steiner children are middle-class or wealthy. It's not unusual for parents to move house, downsize, travel more than 50 miles a day or go into debt to finance their children's education.
A class three teacher grabbed me as I watched her class design a castle wall out of cardboard boxes for the midsummer festival. "What this sort of education does for children is to give them such self-knowledge and self-esteem that they don't have to spend years of their adult life in therapy getting rid of the s*** of their childhood. You treat them with reverence and it allows them their freedom."
The discipline at Michael Hall is quietly inspiring, which is not to say that the children are angels. These are ordinary, lively children, but when a teacher has to regain their attention, it is always done without censure or blame and the children give their attention freely without giggling or reproach. It's not about control, it's about autonomy.
The discipline has its roots in the kindergarten. Marigold Merrgans, a kindergarten teacher at Michael Hall, puts it neatly: "It's our job to make what's going on so exciting that they want to be involved." It's the same impetus right through the school.
It's noticeable that the younger children have a ready, open manner, and the older ones a gentle self-assurance and grace that belies their age. The Steiner system seems to produce well-rounded, confident, articulate people who can look you in the eye because they are as happy in their skins as they are in their minds.As Kim Leys, the communications manager at Michael Hall, says: "At 19, our students may not necessarily know what they want to do once they leave school, but when they finally make that decision they know for certain that they can do it."