I am writing this because I don’t think enough parents have heard of or understand what Steiner (Waldorf) education is. I thought it was time to shed some light on the subject because I believe it is a viable alternative to mainstream education and could benefit many children whom the current state system is failing. There are many misconceptions in the mainstream about Steiner education, so I also want to go about setting the record straight.
Let me say a little about our journey...
I have two daughters at a UK Steiner School and we have been involved in Waldorf education for nine years, since starting in the Parent and Child group when my eldest was two years old.
From an early age, I was aware that my daughters needed a different setting from the typically loud and chaotic toddler groups. I myself didn’t feel at home in the busy, noisy environment either, so I looked around for an alternative; somewhere quiet and safe for my children and somewhere to meet like-minded conscious parents. I was blessed to come upon a local Steiner School, who run a weekly Parent and Child group. As soon as we arrived, I knew I’d made the right decision. The mornings had a lovely rhythm: with free play, parent craft time (what a luxury!), baking bread, outdoor play, circle time and a shared lunch (which parents contribute an item to and always results in a feast!) There was an atmosphere of respect, anticipation, and joyful contribution and the space was wonderfully held by the Parent and Child facilitator. During this time I discovered a lot about Steiner education and realised it would be a good fit for my children. I already felt that an early start at school would “wake” my sweet dreamy children “up” before they were ready for it and knowing that most other countries do not start school until their seventh year, I felt confident that Kindergarten was the answer. I was not disappointed.
My youngest daughter on her last day of Kindergarten with a hobby horse she made herself!
The Kindergarten years are the Wonder Years. The children slowly unfold at their own pace, unhurried and protected from the faster pace of life outside the school. They are free to make discoveries, to play, to imagine and create, without the pressures of academic achievement. Children are only assessed for their readiness for school in their seventh year (6-7yrs).
I fail to understand why the UK Government, contrary to the educational reports they receive on child development, insist it is in children’s best interests to start academic learning as soon as possible. They are even trying to push it into preschools! There is a feeling that children need to get ahead and this can foster early competitiveness in children or feelings of inadequacy, particularly in younger, more dreamy children who are simply not ready for a school structure or academic learning at a young age. These feelings can remain for their whole educational journey if not handled skilfully by the teaching staff.
I have heard from both family members and friends how the daily pressures of homework, high expectations, not to mention SATS, have left their children feeling stressed, anxious and even depressed by the time they enter secondary school. Of course there are children that breeze through it all, but many children suffer big knocks to their confidence and many more feel demotivated at an early age. It saddens me that so many children are becoming a casualty of this misguided system.
Studies have shown that an early start can actually discourage a love of learning after a few years. There is absolutely no proof that an early start has a positive effect on learning outcomes. The UK has not improved its position in global education rankings, compared with several countries in Asia, Germany. Scandinavia and Finland, all of whose children start school at six or seven years.
In many countries, Steiner education is a State funded alternative to the mainstream education and it has produced many highly esteemed professionals. In this country, we have not reached this point yet, although there are currently a few Steiner Academies in Frome, Hereford, Bristol and Exeter.
I have heard that there have been further cuts to the Arts in schools. How sad that there is less and less of a place for creativity in schools. We are so much more than just our brains and not everyone will excel academically. In Steiner schools, song, movement and art are integral to their learning, with teachers encouraging the children to produce beautiful work to feel proud of.
Getting ready for our annual Christmas Fayre
Anyway back to our story…
As I mentioned, my children are very sensitive and don’t thrive in large groups: they feel invisible and quickly lose heart. I felt that mainstream education would do them no good because their needs wouldn’t be met in such large classes. The Steiner school class size is much smaller, with a maximum of 22 pupils and often smaller classes, and an emphasis on getting to know each individual child. The child feels seen and heard. It is a great gift, especially for a quieter child. My daughters have been allowed the time to develop in confidence and to learn at a pace that suits them. They are still enjoying a relatively stress-free childhood. I have seen my once shy and retiring children grow from strength to strength in confidence and ability. My children are now very confident speakers in their class, something I feel sure would not have happened if I had followed the mainstream option. I fully believe that this type of education should be a model for the future.
Mainstream education tackles subjects like politics, sex education, environmental concerns and other subjects I feel are inappropriate at primary school age. Children can lose their innocence and belief that the world is good far too early on and some children can feel overburdened with worry when they are powerless to change anything. In contrast, such subject matter is introduced in Waldorf education when the right level of maturity is reached to receive it.
In Class 1 (6-7yrs), the child is in a reception-like environment with an emphasis on setting boundaries for behaviour in a school classroom and introducing the child to life in the main school. There is still much wonder and fairy tales form an integral part of the curriculum. Letters and numbers are introduced creatively as a prelude to writing and mathematics. The children are assessed individually so all their needs can be met, whether they are early readers or still need time. The child will still only initially attend one long day until 3.20pm. By the end of Class 1, they attend two long days. This increases every year until Class 4 when they attend every day until 3.20pm. In many countries, such as Germany and Finland (who are globally ahead academically) half days are still very common.
A beautiful picture drawn by a class teacher in Class 1
Ideally the child will be with their class teacher from Class 1-8 (6-14yrs), so there is continuity of care and the teacher gets to know the child deeply. The child as a whole is educated, not just the brain, but the body, heart, mind and spirit. There are no screens or textbooks. Instead the child creates his/her own subject books, called the Main Lesson book. These are a real feast for the eyes and soul. Below are examples of a few pictures from my eldest daughter’s main lesson book. So inspiring, I find!
Part of the Geometry main lesson. If you are going to do something, make it beautiful!
In my eldest daughters class (Class 5) this year, the children are studying Ancient Civilisations, Local Geography, Geometry and Botany. There have been wonderful local geography project presentations, a superbly crafted class play of “the Adventures of Odysseus” and the children are currently working on a self guided Botany project. In the class the children support each other’s efforts. Other subjects in Class 5 include languages, as well as Ancient Greek , handwork, clay work, sports and a special kind of dance movement devised by Steiner called Eurhythmy. Below are a few samples of this year’s work.
A Local Geography presentation on the Lake District.
Each summer, the children go on a class trip to reflect what they have learnt in their curriculum that year and the stage in their development. The children in Class 5, at 11 years old, are considered to be at the peak of their strength (before they enter puberty), so in their final year in the Lower school, they will compete in a special Olympics held at the Michael Hall Steiner School in Forest Row, where they will meet up with other children of their age from Steiner schools across England and from abroad. The children will undertake a three day hike, camping along the way, to reach Michael Hall and will spend several days there preparing for the Olympics. There is a tremendous sense of achievement by the end of the week. The children are feeling excited and proud of their place in the school.
My youngest, at eight, will be staying away for one night at a youth hostel with her class. She started school after she was seven as she wasn’t emotionally ready at six and I am so glad she waited as she is doing brilliantly and has fully embraced school life. They are in their second year of Handwork and she has been bringing back gorgeous knitted toys including this kitty and a piglet that our puppy has taken a liking to!
In this day and age, we are in such a hurry to “grow our children up”. We, as adults, surely know that there is no going back to the innocent days of our childhood; with no responsibilities, time on our hands and not a care in the world. I feel we need to protect our children’s childhoods from the pressures of adult life as long as possible, especially in primary school.
We all love our children and for many, mainstream education fits the bill and children do well there, but I fully believe that at least 20% would do better elsewhere. There has been a 40% rise in Home Education because schools are failing many of our children. I believe Steiner schools are a viable alternative for many families, where parents would rather be working than teaching their children, but I think that not enough people know there is another way.
I have seen children breathe a sigh of relief when they enter a Steiner school after leaving mainstream education, once they have adjusted to the different way we do things. Finally a place where they can be themselves, be recognised and are allowed and supported to grow into the independent, confident people they can be, given the time and support they need.
To summarise, some of the Highlights of Steiner education for me are :
- The creative curriculum – each year of the Steiner curriculum is designed to reflect where the child is in terms of their development. There are no text books: the teacher imparts all the information and the children create their own beautifully illustrated books by their own hand. They use good quality materials to achieve a high standard of work that they can feel proud of. Music, movement, art and handwork are an integral part of the curriculum and allow a holistic educational approach; educating the child’s mind, body and spirit. I can’t think of anything children need more in this day and age.
- Recall – The class will spend a little time every morning going over what they learnt in the previous school day, having slept on it. This helps them to integrate their knowledge before moving on to the next topic.
- Continuity – the teacher ideally stays with the class for seven years (6-14yrs) so there is continuity of care and the teacher knows his/her pupils deeply. This is not always possible in every case, but new teachers will work closely with a departing teacher to ensure that the children’s needs are still met. There is certainly greater continuity than in the mainstream, which I appreciate for my children, who do not do well with too much change.
- Smaller class size – class size is no more than 24 pupils and often less, so each child feels seen and the teacher has a chance to know them deeply, not just based on academic performance.
- Individual attention – often more reserved children in larger schools feel invisible, not heard and not able to access what other louder, more confident children can. At a Steiner school, each individual child matters and the teacher will go to lengths to help the child to feel like a valuable part of the class. There is a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. There are also regular Parents Evenings and easy access to the teacher to voice concerns.
- Later academic study – children are considered ready for academic study from the time they start to lose their teeth. This is usually from 6 years. There is no pressure to comply with a fixed learning curve and each child will learn to read and write at their own pace with the encouragement of the class teacher. If a child is a late reader, as my eldest was, they still very much participate in the class and do not feel less than the others. There is learning support if necessary.
- A cooperative attitude – the children are expected and encouraged to behave respectfully towards each other and collaborative work is important. It is incredibly inspiring and heart warming to see how supportive the children are of each other’s work in the classroom. It has certainly not been my personal experience of school life!
- A community school – My daughters know most of the children’s names in the school. The children feel held and safe in a community of pupils, staff and parents. As they say ” It takes a village to raise a child”. This is the closest I have found to this. Parents are invited to be involved in school fundraising and caring for the school, including cleaning the classroom once a term, which is a lovely opportunity to care for your child’s learning environment and gives the parent an insight into what goes on in the classroom. There is even a school shop, selling healthy foods, run by parent and teacher volunteers which is a hub of the community.
- Handwork Lessons are a wonderful opportunity to learn various skills. The first two years are devoted to learning knitting and the children make themselves a selection of gorgeous knitted toys of which they can be proud. The children learn crotchet in Class 3 and Cross stitch in Class 4. In Class 5 they return to knitting, making socks and my eldest is now knitting gloves. Here are a few examples of her work. What a wonderful achievement.
A cross stitch pin cushion made in Class 4 following a painting of their own design
Cross stitch Christmas cards made in Class 4
Knitted socks in Class 5
- Yearly Class Plays – every year each Class performs a play for the rest of the school and their parents, which ties in with one of their Main Lesson subjects. The play forms part of their Main Lesson for half a term and the children work hard together; painting scenery, making props and some costumes and advertising their play. This year, my eldest (in Class 5) performed a play of “the Adventures of Odysseus” to tie in with her studies of Ancient Civilisations and learning Ancient Greek.
My youngest (in Class 2), performed a play about St Francis of Assisi to tie in with her studies of the Saints. They were both superb and the children felt they were part of something very special.
School festivals – festivals are such a lovely way to mark the the passing of the year and reflect on seasonal changes. They range from special assemblies around Easter and Christmas, to Maypole dancing and jumping over a little fire at Midsummer.
Lantern walks in November, as the light dwindles, are another highlight of the Early Years calendar and continue for a few years in the main school.
The Festivals are particularly beautiful in the Kindergarten years when parents are able to participate in the festivities. The children are all very much involved.
My youngest daughter serving strawberries and cream at the Early Years ‘Strawberry Fayre’ festival in her last year in Kindergarten
So those are the highlights, now to tackle some of the Misconceptions of what a Steiner school is:
- “A free for all Attitude” – Steiner Education was designed to educate the “whole child” in “freedom”, which has been misconstrued as a ‘free for all attitude’. This is absolutely not how a Steiner schools works. Children know their place and boundaries for behaviour in the classroom are clear, including expectations of respectful behaviour towards classmates and the teachers. The teacher is in charge and the children are led and held by them. Parents are free to speak to the teacher as often as they need to and there is an open line of communication so things can be tackled early on if necessary.
- ” A load of hippies” – If being a hippy, means believing in a peaceful, respectful environment for your child, then I’m fine with that! The school has rules and regulations, just like any other school. There is a code for dress and behaviour. It is not a democratic school. The teacher is there to guide and inspire the children to achieve a high standard of work and behaviour.
- “Children just play” – In Kindergarten much free play is encouraged. There is a rhythm to the Kindergarten morning, with a walk in the park, followed by circle time, free play, the occasional seasonal craft, a snack, tidying up time and outside play, followed by story time. The children are encouraged early on to contribute to the class; by tidying away the playthings, accompanied by a song and they also help lay or clear the table at snack time. They learn a sense of responsibility and their place in the class through contribution. The ages are combined from 4yrs to 6yrs and the younger children learn from the older ones whilst the older ones are happy to inspire the younger ones by their example. It works very well. There is no academic work at all. Instead the children have time to evolve as human beings, through their play: Play is considered “a child’s work”.
From school age, play is reserved for the playground and children are expected to care for the classroom as part of their daily routine. There are movement games but this is all structured by the teacher.
- No discipline – this again is not the case at all. Teachers are very much in charge. Parents can approach teachers to speak about their children in detail and children can voice concerns, but ultimately the teacher is in charge and the children can relax and get on with their work. It is a school after all!
- Not academic/scientific – the Steiner curriculum differs from that of mainstream education and this continues into the Upper school, where pupils will also study for GCSE’s. Although children do not study the three sciences separately, the curriculum includes science from Class 6 onwards and several children from our school have gone on to study engineering and excel in their fields of interest. Sixth form colleges welcome Steiner pupils because of the broad curriculum and the children’s thirst for knowledge.
I am so grateful that I was guided to the school so early on in my children’s lives, but it is never too late to give your child the kind of education that meets their need for a creative curriculum, that lets them grow and learn at a pace that suits them, without being overloaded with targets, SATS, homework, because after a long day at school, shouldn’t a child have some free time to download what they have learnt!?
So many of us were impoverished in the way we were taught as children. I for one, would have loved to have been Steiner educated. Being sensitive, creative and an observer, the competitive environment of a Public school killed my joy of learning: It was all about outcomes and exams. I withdrew and although I have come out whole, with very good grades, it did nothing to build my confidence or self esteem to tackle the big wide world.
My eldest selling her handmade gifts at the school Christmas Fayre.
The way the world is going today, we need to find more ways to support the creative thinkers, the entrepreneurs, the inventors as we will need them even more for our future survival.