Why we need 12 classes

Jens Göken

At the Sorsum Waldorf school we have a main lesson in class eleven in which eurythmy and handwork teachers work jointly with the pupils. That gives the pupils the opportunity to look at the human form, their own body, from different perspectives. The results of this work are publicly performed. As a result we can experience the pupils not just at their eurythmy graduation in class twelve but also previously in class eleven. Here we can always see how differently the class twelve pupils stand on the stage, the much more sovereign way in which they approach their project, however touching their presentation in class eleven might have been. 

Conversations with upper school teachers confirm that impression: after the pupils have entered the upper school with a new enthusiasm, they become aware of the more intense level of learning requiring much greater seriousness on their part, to which they often react with a strong dose of letting themselves go in all the forms of pubescent boundary breaking. Performance can suddenly drop to an extreme extent and pupils who otherwise make a constructive contribution to lessons can refuse to b e involved. In the course of the ninth year of school they pass through a trough which reaches its nadir in class ten.

Some parents then think that the school is to blame for that and remove their children. They have difficulty in believing what experienced teachers try to tell them: that all of this is a perfectly normal developmental process which we call “puberty” and that the pupils will be “back” at the latest towards the end of class eleven, beginning of class twelve. Every upper school teacher knows that in the course of class eleven – in late developers even in the first half of class twelve – the pupils emerge again from their phase of confusion; then, if we have given them the opportunity to go through this development, they respond in quite a different way: with greater seriousness, with their own interests lighting up in which their personality with questions and motives of their own begins to show itself. They take hold of the lesson content, penetrate their strongly fluctuating feeling organisation and plant their feet on the ground with incredible strength and intensity. Many a spectator has experienced with a dropping jaw the eurythmy graduation and class play of class twelve. It has become apparent that the second half-year of class twelve is better for the performance than the first.

These phenomena are palpable: we cannot consider the twelve-year educational task of a Waldorf school to have been completed and send the individual pupil personalities out into life until class twelve has been completed. The class twelve play, the eurythmy graduation and the individual project for the year are the modern, contemporary initiation “rites” which provide the impulse for this final stage of school-leaving maturity and allow it to unfold, preparing the actual breakthrough of the individuality at about age 21.

Erosion of the upper school – at whose cost?

But what have we been able to see  in recent years in the German Waldorf school landscape? That there is serious consideration of the “offer” from the state to get rid of the twelve-year all-round education of the human being in favour of turning our schools into elitist Waldorf institutions in which the “B pupils” are either tolerated as a second string or are dismissed from the school before they reach class twelve. We can observe how colleges of teachers let themselves be pulled over a barrel by naive parents and transfer at least one or two of the graduations mentioned above to class eleven although they know from their work as teachers that the pupils are “not quite ready” at that point for these impulses to have a truly rounding off effect.

That the state has tried to intervene fundamentally in the structure of the Waldorf schools has only happened once before in German history. But the overall concept of a twelve-year school for the whole human being has never since then been questioned in the way that the state has attempted to do in recent years despite many fraught processes of trying to reach an understanding.

And this is happening, paradoxically, at a time when the Waldorf schools have been able to position themselves externally very successfully in the international educational landscape because, not least, the formula for success of the PISA leader Finland is remarkably similar to what has been practiced in Waldorf education since 1919. But now, instead of investigating further the Finnish methods and the Waldorf education so widely used in our own country, the attempt is made to dismantle step by step this successful form of schooling.

That might be a legitimate concern on the side of the state, for the state (which actually should have nothing to do with the organisation of education, cf. Mathias Maurer in Er­ziehungskunst-Spezial 10/2011, p. 3) has its own criteria and can demand what it wants. The actual tragedy is that we, as the global community of Waldorf schools, are willing to engage with these alien criteria instead of presenting the argument in all educational clarity as to why we were set up as a twelve-year integrated school and must under all circumstances maintain ourselves as such!

Anyone who teaches in the upper school knows from experience that working with the pupils on, for example, the recent history of the twentieth century or the modern novel can only truly get to the heart of the matter in class twelve, that only then the quality of the debate reaches a level at which one can give them a certificate of maturity. Because it is only then, towards the end of the third septennium, that the ability of young people to form judgements has developed to such an extent that their social conscience and idealism can come to expression in the free development of their own life plan instead of being choked off by an inherently corrupt pragmatic approach to marking and examinations!

Whether they subsequently go on to take the university entrance exams in a thirteenth year, go to vocational school or into training – or whether, taking up an idea of the educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt, we should consider a general first year at an institution of higher learning for all as a human right – that is something we can and must leave to the pupils to decide for themselves.

But until that point, until the conclusion of the twelfth year of school, we should allow them to benefit from a general human education in the sense of the Study of Man, which Rudolf Steiner placed in the turmoil of our time as an impulse for the future, from an education which has been corrupted as little as possible by state examination requirements.