Issue 05/24

Waldorf Education in the Context of Social Inequality

Frodo Ostkämper

As private schools, do Waldorf schools also contribute to the segregation of social groups? Or do they offer all students a special opportunity to obtain all educational qualifications because there is no failing grade and no selection after elementary school?

Poverty has an impact

Growing up in poverty, resulting from the unfair distribution of resources in our society, has a restrictive effect on all areas of life. Children and young people affected by poverty are more likely to live in cramped housing conditions and in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, take fewer trips on vacation, participate less in cultural or sporting leisure activities – in short, the scope for development, creativity and experience is limited due to a lack of financial opportunities. In addition, the experience of social exclusion, stigmatization and shame has a long-term negative impact on self-esteem, self-efficacy and life satisfaction. In addition, poverty structures in our society are strongly entrenched, meaning that in most cases they shape the lives of affected families for several generations.

Growing up in poverty jeopardizes numerous rights of children formulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right of every child to equality and protection from disadvantage (Article 2), the best possible development (Article 6), participation and involvement (Article 12), the highest attainable standard of health (Article 24), social security and living conditions appropriate to development (Articles 26, 27) and the right to education (Article 28).

Social origin and educational opportunities

For decades, educational sociology has given the German education system a poor report card: The educational success of children and young people is permanently dependent on the social status, educational background and migration background of their parents. The education system therefore does not currently mitigate the effects of social disadvantages. While children from higher socio-economic backgrounds are also privileged in the education system, children from materially and socially disadvantaged families fail due to sometimes invisible and seemingly insurmountable barriers. Despite all efforts to ensure equal opportunities, educational success in Germany is particularly strongly linked to social background compared to other countries. For example, 74 out of 100 children from families with a university degree go on to study at a university, but only 21 out of 100 children of parents without a university degree. A disadvantage-sensitive education system would recognize and take into account the different material, cultural and social resources available to families. The education system could then work towards reducing social inequalities and give as many children as possible access to our cultural heritage and guarantee equal rights for all children to develop their potential, regardless of where they live and their social background.

Waldorf education and educational opportunities: social justice was the founding impulse

Do Waldorf educational institutions want to make a contribution to the democratization of educational opportunities in this sense? There is the accusation that independent schools, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforce the social selection of the education system described above. As the structure of the clientele at Waldorf schools is generally comparatively privileged and homogeneous, they contribute to the tendency of social milieus in society to become segregated. This social segregation leads to an increasing concentration of problematic situations in certain urban areas or at individual schools on the one hand, while a “beautiful, intact private school world” provides oases for children from privileged milieus on the other. This is at odds with the demand for inclusion and the free development of the potential of all children, regardless of their background. The founding impulse of the Waldorf school movement is rooted in making a contribution to social justice and renewal. In the opening speech of the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart on September 7th, 1919, founder Emil Molt emphasized his desire to «create the first so-called unified school», which would not only be open to the “son and daughter of the wealthy”, but also to the children of «ordinary workers». However, already during the first few years after its founding, many people interested in anthroposophy moved to Stuttgart to enable their children to attend the school founded by Steiner. This marked the beginning of a trend whereby Waldorf schools were mainly sought after and shaped by affluent parents.

The potential of Waldorf education for the democracy of educational opportunities

After more than a hundred years of Waldorf education, it seems to be time to reconnect with the social impulses of Waldorf education in order to counteract social tendencies of division, the increasing polarization of rich and poor and the devaluation and discrimination of people with certain characteristics. To do this, we need to look beyond the boundaries of an educational sphere that is supposedly detached from society and face up to the effects that society has on educational institutions and vice versa.

The concept of Waldorf education has particular potential when it comes to harmonizing educational opportunities. The fact that there is no failing grade and no segregation after primary school means that the path to all educational qualifications is potentially open to all students. In particular, the broad spectrum of approaches to learning and opportunities for experience offers a stimulating learning environment that is suitable for developing the individual impulses and potential of each child. This includes, among other things, an emphasis on handicraft and artistic activities and musical and aesthetic experiences. The image of the child in Waldorf education can provide a spiritual and ethical framework for respectful and non-judgmental cooperation that respects individuality. Last but not least, the endeavor to create a school community with all participants could help to ensure that everyone can contribute equally and also experience support.

The potential of Waldorf education to make a contribution to reducing educational inequalities also gives rise to responsibility. I believe that this valuable educational offer is currently less available to those who could benefit from it in particular. Breaking down the barriers mentioned above should be an urgent concern for the Waldorf movement.

This question concerns access to Waldorf educational institutions from kindergarten onwards, which means the risk of exclusion of families and children with certain characteristics. Another task is to create an environment within these institutions that is aware of prejudice and sensitive to disadvantage, in which all children and their families from different backgrounds are treated with appreciation, empathy and respect. The path to realizing such an inclusive culture begins by reflecting on one's own prejudices, judgments and values as well as the interaction of various privileges and disadvantages.


There are no comments yet

Add comment

0 / 2000

Thank you for your comment. It will be published after review by the administrators.