The English patient

Sven Saar

In the 1980s and 1990s Britain was a good place for Waldorf education: at Emerson College in Sussex many international students familiarised themselves with anthroposophy and prepared for pioneering work in their countries – at that time there were only few English-language training centres in Europe, Latin America or Asia. Francis Edmunds and Georg Locher were key figures in the worldwide spread of this impulse and the peaceful park landscape in southern England was a place of inspiration and renewal.

In the United Kingdom itself the movement also grew: if for decades there were only six schools deeply rooted in anthroposophy and often with quite a “German” character, a new self-confident Anglo-Saxon style appeared through the  alternative movement of the der 1970s and 1980s. In these mostly small schools everyone – pupils, parents and teachers – called each other by their first name. School fees were often voluntary or could be replaced by personal contributions in kind and the focus was on everyone’s social wellbeing. Meanwhile there are over 30 Waldorf schools in Great Britain and Ireland most of which have to fully fund themselves through the fees from parents.

Private schools have a long tradition in England: although only seven percent in total of British children attend a private school, a third of politicians, half of all ministers and influential journalists and three quarters of all judges can look back on a non-state school education. That does not mean, however, that the British are generally open to alternative education: almost all of these schools follow a conventional curriculum.

On the other hand they in turn serve and produce an economic and intellectual elite which exercises a decisive influence on the cultural and political life of the island. Anyone who sends their child to a Waldorf school – still unfamiliar to most people – is consciously turning against this system and laboriously has to explain to friends and relatives that these are not schools for children who are troubled, have learning disabilities or are artistically highly gifted.

Lack of money and state inspection

Day-to-day life for British Waldorf teachers has always been full of challenges. Above all, the fact that most parents cannot afford realistically set school fees means that there is a constant lack of money. At my first school in the north of England we sold a piece of the school garden each year to be able to pay the August salaries. When all the land had been used up, we made ourselves redundant in July and went on the dole all  summer until the school was able to employ us again in September. The difference for my family between full employment and unemployment benefits: £20 a week! Under these conditions all Waldorf education in this country is pioneering work even if the oldest school has been in existence since 1925.

But the lack of money is not the only problem: for the last twenty years a system has increasingly established itself in this country which seeks to guarantee success in the education system through testing and inspections. Its ideal is that it should be possible to measure and follow the progress of each child at any time. The body responsible for this is the Office for Standards in Education (OfSted) which regularly carries out inspections at all English schools. The resulting reports are publicly available to everyone and meanwhile play a crucial role for many people in England when deciding where to live.

Schools fear OfSted inspections in which lesson planning, pupil attendance and absence, progress and exam results have to be painstakingly recorded and during which there is meticulous attention to administrative efficiency, risk analyses for activities and class trips, safety of the school grounds and qualification of the staff. Waldorf schools are also subjected to this system and pay thousands of pounds every few years in fees for each inspection by government officials.

Everyone who is in regular contact with children in the UK must undergo a so-called disclosure check (criminal record check) which is not cheap either. This has led, among other things, to there hardly being any possibility any longer for exchanges with pupils from other countries. Such a check would have to be applied for in every host family for all members of the household over sixteen, which for most schools presents an insurmountable financial obstacle.

A few Waldorf schools – such as for example Ringwood in the south of England – have made the corresponding investment and meanwhile specialise in taking foreign pupils in their upper school. They have developed a successful concept in which their own pupils, not least, benefit a great deal from the international flair.

English schools – German schools

After almost twenty years in England, I wanted to see how different the life of a Waldorf teacher in Germany is and found completely new challenges there – to my great surprise significantly greater freedom but also an increasing focus among parents and teachers on the school leaving exams and less on harmonious social togetherness.

In the British schools – many state ones as well – there are weekly assemblies at which birthdays are celebrated, stories are told and songs sung. No one sits in rows like in the German monthly assemblies but together in a circle and everyone knows one another. It is not unusual in the smaller schools for all pupils to know the names of all the others, irrespective of age.

Earlier, faster, more efficiently

After eight years in Germany, my wife and I were drawn back to the island kingdom. I work here as a class teacher and in training and advanced training and cannot escape the conclusion that the challenges for my colleagues and myself have clearly grown in the last decade. Several Waldorf schools have had to close due to lack of money and some are currently under threat of closure. In general it has become increasingly difficult in Britain to have a carefree childhood.

In the nineteenth century, England was one of the last European countries to introduce a general schooling obligation and to the present day the motto applies: earlier, faster, more efficiently. State schools start at the age of five and from the start children are dressed in uniforms which through the enforced wearing of jackets, ties, white shirts and black shoes aim to turn the child primarily into a mini adult (Waldorf schools, incidentally, don’t do that).

In addition to the many state exams which the child has to sit and pass, there are the physical and metaphorical barriers: the British tabloids have turned the subject of child abuse into such a permanent burning issue that meanwhile a safe barrier has to be erected around every English school, every nursery and kindergarten which can only be passed by ringing and registering at reception. All teachers, visiting parents or tradesmen have to be clearly identified with an ID card.

When OfSted recently threatened to close Kings Langley Rudolf Steiner School with its rich tradition, the main points of criticism included that adults were going about without ID cards and that children had contact with teachers outside school times – as if that was already suspicious and objectionable in itself. If a Rudolf Steiner here called out, as he did at the time in Stuttgart, to the assembled pupils “Do you love your teachers?”, he would have to fear for his job …

Between management and inspiration

Waldorf schools cannot avoid many of these requirements and daily life is full of compromises. In the general culture it is easy to think that society thinks adults capable of the most horrific deeds while children are capable of nothing: hardly a child in this country goes anywhere unsupervised. Nine out of ten primary school pupils are taken to school and collected again by their parents. OfSted inspections are feared in the colleges of teachers.

The self-management which Steiner wanted has long become impossible. Every Waldorf school requires a regular administrative apparatus in order to cope with the bureaucratic effort. Despite the shortage of money, many schools have meanwhile employed a highly paid director whose sole task is to deal with management and the contact with the authorities.

Every British Waldorf school – as indeed every Waldorf school in the world – is independent in principle. It can structure itself as allowed by the laws in its country and does not need to take account of its neighbouring school. Thus the British Waldorf school association has always been called a “Fellowship”. The schools consider themselves as siblings and meanwhile form a diverse family: some have given up the endless struggle for self-management and acquired a hierarchical structure, others are still experimenting with new forms of responsibility, and others again are still attempting to have the schools still run purely by the teachers.

For some years there have additionally been four Steiner Academies: Waldorf schools which are fully funded by the state, if insufficiently, and have entered into many compromises with the state so that the parents of their pupils do not have to pay any fees. Here there is no elitism, no selection process: every child for whom there is a place has to be accepted. In order to maintain their intuitive way of working and creativity in this system, the teachers have to work even harder on their ideals.

This is also what underlies the theme of this year’s conference of British teachers, “Sources of Inspiration”: how can we manage to preserve the childhood of the wonderfully creative and socially inclined British Waldorf pupils (and their parents)? In a culture which has dedicated itself to the “safeguarding” of children, but is far removed from an education for freedom, the Waldorf schools can and must set important impulses and show that there is also a different way.

About the author: Sven Saar works at the Steiner Academy Hereford in Great Britain as a class teacher and in training.