During my time at the University of the West of England, I worked with Professor Philip Woods on the Steiner Schools in England project, funded by the then DfES. The New Labour government of that time was keen to investigate the possibilities for mutual learning between different sectors of education. The DfES funding allowed all twenty-three English Steiner Waldorf schools to be approached. Twenty-two out of the twenty-three schools agreed to participate in the study. Fifteen of them were visited by members of the research team, and I visited eight of these to conduct detailed case studies based on extended classroom observation and interviews with teachers.
During that time I became thoroughly immersed in the anthroposophical view of child development, which is absolutely fundamental to the work of the schools.
To understand Steiner-Waldorf education it is necessary to journey back in time to the Germany of 1919 that stood in social ruin at the end of the Great War. Thinking people were in despair at the ravages of social inequality compounded by national defeat. It was a time receptive to radicalism. Reflecting back on the project now, I can see that one of the fascinations of Steiner’s towering (and often controversial) philosophy is that it deals with some of the great perennial themes of education. UK governments with their missions for “change” or “new starts” come and go every five years. Secretaries of State generally last somewhat less long than that. But there are certain great themes of education that politicians lacking the insight and willpower of Steiner have never got to grips with. Top of the list remain social inequality, freedom and a failure to develop education as the means of transformation and the attainment of a better world. In other words, the antecedents of the Great War are still potentially at large in our world today.
On these topics, Steiner was truly radical. An article of mine published in the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality drew attention to the possibility that Steiner Waldorf education offers alternatives to a number of structural or ideological constraints which remain deeply embedded within our education system in spite of the rhetoric of change:
- A grounding in the values of neo-liberalism, individualism and economic growth as self-evidently good and an end in itself;
- The spirit of the child ceasing to be the primary concern of education, which is no longer attentive to child development as a guide to the appropriateness of the curriculum;
- Young people treated primarily as future units of economic production rather than uniquely valuable spiritual beings in need of social and cultural fulfilment;
- A fragmented curriculum from which it is hard for young people to obtain a sense of higher meaning or purpose;
- Young people’s experience of academic mentoring as frequently fragmented and discontinuous;
- Science education in disarray and increasingly rejected by young people;
- The arts and humanities regarded as frivolous in comparison to subjects associated with economic utility, such as ICT.
A quotation from Steiner that remained on my office wall throughout the research was:
Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings, who are able out of their own initiative to impart purpose and direction to their lives.
In the Philosophy of Freedom (Steiner 1919) it is clear that Steiner views freedom as a spiritual quality. He claimed to speak from direct knowledge of the spiritual world but this is open to much misinterpretation and misrepresentation. It is not a religious statement. It is a statement about how any individual might gain access, through disciplined study, to a consciousness that is ultimately within. This is fundamentally what Steiner meant by ‘spiritual science’ and it is through the sovereignty of the truly free individual that tyranny is to become a thing of the past.
What Steiner meant by this freedom as well as his writings on education and the system they inspired merit further study. You can download the original DfES research report here.
I have written a chapter entitled Education for freedom: the goal of Steiner-Waldorf schools in the book Alternative Education for the 21st Century: philosophies, approaches, visions (P. Woods and G. Woods, eds) London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Publications list: Steiner Education