A recent storm has emerged over reports of secret government memos detailing complaints of bullying and racism at Steiner schools in the UK. Steiner schools, built around the philosophy of Austrian educationalist Rudolf Steiner who died in 1925, are no strangers to criticism and controversy. But now the debate is heating up on whether these schools should get public money.
I conducted detailed research into the way children learn to read at Steiner schools between 2007 and 2009, and gained a unique perspective on their approach to teaching literacy as well as the Steiner philosophy on life in general. While I didn’t see any direct signs of bullying, I saw some worrying signs of what happens when children don’t fit in. But I also witnessed some very positive aspects of the way children can flourish under the Steiner educational philosophy.
Reading not as good as expected
The main research project for my PhD focused on reading development. Steiner schools do not begin teaching children how to read until they are seven, therefore I was able to look at the effect of this later start by comparing a group of 30 Steiner-educated children with a group of 30 younger, mainstream-educated children, aged between four and five. I tested both groups four times during their first two years of learning to read.
At the start, I found the Steiner children were ahead of the younger comparison group in language, memory and their awareness of the sounds in words. As these skills have all been shown to predict reading progress, this meant they were more “ready” to begin the process of learning how to read.
But I found that at the end of the first and second year, there was no difference in the word reading and reading comprehension performance between the Steiner-educated and mainstream-educated children, while the mainstream children were better at spelling. There was also evidence of a higher proportion of very poor readers at the Steiner schools.
The reasons for this lay in the way the Steiner teachers taught reading. In standard schools in the UK, children are taught how to read through a method called synthetic phonics (all 40+ sounds and their corresponding letters are taught), which is highly effective in producing fast initial progress in word reading and spelling.
In contrast, Steiner schools use a more traditional, “whole-language” method which has been shown not to be as effective. With this method, words are taught to be recognised as wholes with some reference to the sound of the initial letter. They also spend less time overall on literacy teaching. This is why they did not make faster progress, as would have been expected from their skills at the start. This is an example of where Steiner schools would benefit from adopting more modern teaching methods.
But in general, I think it is of benefit to start formal education later, allowing children time to develop their social and oral language skills. This was the principle recommendation of the independent 2009 Cambridge Primary review, and since then the benefits of play for young children have been clearly set out by researchers.
Imagination shone through
During my research, there were many things that I thought were good about Steiner education. In particular, the holistic, child-centered way in which the day was constructed. There was lots of time devoted to outdoor play, drawing, knitting and story-telling (activities that there is not enough time for in the mainstream schools).
The children I tested were mostly happy and confident and the boys in particular thrived. There were more male teachers and those from continental Europe than usual, which fostered good modern language skills and a less “feminised” curriculum, with less time sitting quietly listening to female teachers.
I was amazed by the incredible imagination and art skill of the teachers. Almost daily I would come in to find a new spectacular drawing on the chalkboard. Some of the work I saw the children produce was excellent; beautiful crayon drawings and models to represent Viking dwellings. I loved the way everything was related – if they were learning about the Vikings, they’d write stories about it, draw it, model it, and do sums about it.
You have to fit in
The main difficulty was that Steiner children remain with the same teacher for an eight-year “cycle”. The teacher is the authority in the classroom and typically there are no teaching assistants or ability groupings. This meant that if you had a teacher you got on well with and who was good, you could thrive, but if the teacher was not so good and there was a personality clash, then things had the potential to go wrong.
For example, there was a high rate of absenteeism with several children on the register appearing not to have been at the school for weeks. At one of the schools, it was implied that a child had not attended all year because “the forces of the classroom did not agree with him”. I later found out that the child had behavioural difficulties.
In many ways, the Steiner philosophy is like a religion. You’re either a believer or a non-believer (one teacher even talked to me about his “conversion” after a previous life as a banker), and they expected everyone to be a believer both at home and at school.
For instance, part of the Steiner philosophy is not to expose children below the age of 12 to technology; so no TV, computer or video games. One mother confessed to me that her six-year-old daughter may not be offered a place in Class 1 because the teacher found out that she was watching the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. On another day, during a discussion about one child at a staff meeting, the whole family was described as “not one of us” and the child’s place at the school questioned.
This said, there are many positive aspects of Steiner education that I would like to see incorporated into mainstream schools, such as a later start to formal lessons and a more holistic curriculum. But I would like to see these things done because research has shown they are good for children, not because they conform to the teachings of an Austrian man who lived a hundred years ago.