Aren’t they a little bit different – these Waldorf parents?

Steffen Koolmann, Lars Petersen, Petra Ehrler

Waldorf parents establish their own school and to this end as a matter of course organise and manage a large school structure together with the teachers, support the training of their own teachers and on top of the large amount of work this entails pay up a substantial amount! Why – and who are these people?

For the first time in the history of the German Waldorf movement, almost 7,000 Waldorf parents were surveyed in a representative study – conceived and designed by the Institute for Education Economics of Alanus University – under strict conditions of data protection and anonymity. One hundred and seventeen Waldorf schools, randomly selected by the Institute from all parts of Germany, were asked for their cooperation and whether they would in turn send out a questionnaire or documentation for access to an online portal to approximately ten percent of their parents, again randomly selected.

The respondents undoubtedly needed quite a lot of time to answer the considerable number of questions, 129 in all. Almost 3,700 parents (response rate of 54.4%) nevertheless took the time to respond and returned the questionnaire. This unusually high rate reflects the great interest of parents in being involved in the continuing development of Waldorf schools.

Waldorf parents – where have they come from?

In this chapter of the study we are interested in the background of the parents. Almost ten percent of respondents have attended a Waldorf school themselves and in about three percent of these parents at least one of their parents had been a Waldorf pupil. Most of the parents who had themselves attended a Waldorf school started in class 1 and stayed to class 12 or 13.

Have you encountered the preconception that Waldorf parents are unworldly? If we look their professional qualifications or academic degrees we can note that Waldorf parents are right in the thick of it in this respect. Forty-four percent have a professional qualification, 42 percent have a degree and 10 percent of parents even have both.

What motivates them?

Parents probably have a precise idea of what makes a good school for them. We asked about these criteria for selecting a school and also the extent to which they are met by their own Waldorf school. Some of the most important criteria for parents were holistic teaching, the possibility of obtaining a state qualification and learning without anxiety, things which they also saw as being most likely to be achieved. In contrast, the possibility of obtaining a Waldorf qualification was a significantly less important criterion. Very important, but not sufficiently achieved in the view of parents were, among other things, an acceptable class size as well as good advanced training for teaching staff.

Another interesting factor was that the criterion “The school places importance on performance in its pupils”  was classed as the least important criterion by parents. We will analyse the classification of criteria in more detail in further steps.

There are many parents who come from state schools. Thirty-two percent join the Waldorf school with experience of other school systems. Almost three-quarters of these parents value this “specific education which focuses on other things”. Many experienced “dissatisfaction with mainstream state schools” (64 percent) und “too much performance pressure” (50 percent). In fourth place, parents indicated “positive experiences of other parents with Waldorf education” as a reason for changing, something that highlights the position of parents as multipliers (multiple choices were possible).

All of us know the extent to which Waldorf schools are supported by the voluntary commitment of parents. Here is an extract from our detailed analysis of volunteer work: two thirds of parents are involved (50%) or have been involved in the past (16%). So far 34 percent of respondents have not been involved. Even if individual people have been working on a voluntary basis at Waldorf schools for more than 30 years, most specify “less than a year” and “two years”. And how do parents judge their involvement? Seventy-two percent experience it as personal enrichment. The results clearly show that parent involvement in the work of the school is accepted and overwhelmingly positively perceived, but that its extension tends not to be wanted.

Where are they going?

We asked parents where they stood with regard to statements which are being debated in the Waldorf school movement. For 92 percent of parents the most important thing is that the central school leaving exams should be offered and 70 percent agreed that the eight-year class teacher principle should be maintained. Approximately 65 percent of parents respectively wanted  “greater discussion of socially relevant and topical subjects” and that “pupils should more than hitherto be guided towards socially and ecologically responsible action”.

We would still like to highlight two striking results in this extract from our initial analysis. Parents overall appear to be very satisfied because 95 percent of them would recommend their school to others! But that 23 percent also say that their school is not very well prepared for the future should give rise to further discussion.  

To this end we will undertake a detailed analysis of the free text field “What three greatest challenges do you see for your Waldorf school in the next five years?” because this is the way in which the voice of parents can make a significant contribution to the future development of the Waldorf school movement.