Goodbye Michael House School. The second English Waldorf school closes

Sven Saar

The school could have been – thus a persistent rumour – the oldest Waldorf school in the world: already before the First World War the English anthroposophist Edith Brenda Lewis spoke to Rudolf Steiner about his article “The education of the child” and proposed that this would be a way to work with the children of her father’s factory workers in Ilkeston in northern England. Initially this did not come to anything but Miss Lewis did not give up: she built a house in the grounds of “Meridian Hosiery” which offered adult education and eurythmy courses for the workers – Michael House! 

The first school was subsequently founded in London in 1925 but two of its teachers went to Derbyshire in 1934 to set up the second school there with the help of Edith Lewis’ legacy. For 85 years it was the only viable Waldorf school in an English working-class town – all the others are located in places where the educated middle classes tend to be found. 

In the 1970s, the school building designed by Rex Raab was sold to Weleda UK, which has had its headquarters there ever since, and the school moved a few miles out of town into the countryside and a former coalmining administrative building. The number of pupils never rose above the magic number of 200 and was never allowed to fall below 100. For decades pioneering work was improvised! People who were later to exercise a defining influence in the movement started their careers here: Ron Jarman, Christopher Clouder and Martyn Rawson all worked as young teachers in Michael House. 

For me, too, it was the first and, in many respects, defining school: I experienced my first class here and was surrounded by serious, selfless and unfailingly idealistic people. There was something particularly warm-hearted about the children and parents – we felt acknowledged and valued despite all the everyday stress.  

It was always difficult financially since we were exclusively dependent on parental fees: each summer we ran out of money and a piece of the school garden was sold to Weleda to be able to pay the August salaries. Once all of the garden was sold, we laid ourselves off in July, went on the dole and employed ourselves again in September. For my wife and myself, both fully employed, that represented a whole 100 pounds extra in the month! 

In the last two decades, pupil numbers fell and the school grounds had increasingly to be neglected. A wonderful Waldorf nursery brought some hope for a time but the debts kept growing and the already poor salaries kept shrinking. When last December the schools inspectorate Ofsted arrived and found the school inadequate, demanding comprehensive improvement measures, it was a whole bale of straw which broke the camel’s back: the exhausted school was simply no longer up to this challenge. My former pupils had tears in their eyes – after all, they had spent a unique, colourful and untroubled childhood here. 

Those in positions of responsibility hope to be able to start a new initiative as soon as possible. Perhaps it is necessary to be able to let go of the old for something new to come about.