This post was written by Esther Fidler, a teacher in a mainstream state school. The views she expresses here are her own and should not be taken or implied to be taken to be representative of her employers. But you can take them to be representative of mine, Mike Collins.
1. WOW! New School! Ecology n’ Stuff! Oh, hang on a minute…
A few weeks ago I read an article in my local paper, The East Anglian, about a proposed Free School. As a local state school teacher I was quite interested and decided to take a look at their website, which from my first impressions seemed nothing out of the ordinary. My attention was drawn to one sentence, however, ‘…our school will bring together the best practice from Steiner and state-school approaches…’ Hmmm, note to self, find out about Steiner approaches. I read of ‘joy and wonder’, ‘passion for learning and life’, ‘…honours the diversity of all the individuals within it and responds to their changing needs accordingly…’
All fairly standard school-speak, lots of good words which to the uninitiated sound really great but when you think carefully (and have a teacher’s perspective) actually tell you nothing about what really goes on at a school. Most schools create a ‘healthy, warm, safe, nurturing environment’ and all want to instil joy and wonder and a passion for learning and life. They’d be pretty poor if they didn’t, and that was my problem with Fullfledge; what it is presenting as NEW already exists in other schools. They want to teach children about sustainability – so do we, they want to teach children about gardening, cooking and being creative – so do we, they will be working with Forest Schools – WE DO IT ALREADY! Which led me to question: – what is so good and different about this school that it should remove children (and therefore funding) from the nearby state schools, and do I want my taxes spent on it?
As Rudolf Steiner features prominently on the Fullfledge Ecology School site I decided to follow my instincts and do some research, it took about five minutes on the web for me to become extremely concerned. Since you’re reading this on UK Anthroposophy you will have access to other articles which explain Steiner Waldorf Education more comprehensively than I can here. But most importantly for me, Fullfledge Ecology School states in its FAQs that ‘our curriculum arises out of Steiner’s picture of child development’ so it is vital to know exactly what that is. It seems most Steiner schools are not entirely upfront about anthroposophy, Steiner’s ‘philosophy’ (or more accurately belief system) which underpins every aspect of their pedagogy. This reticence is compounded by the fact that anthroposophy is esoteric and based on knowledge gained through Steiner’s clairvoyant abilities. Their ‘hidden knowledge’ is thus ‘need to know’. Well, I do.
The Steiner view of child development is that children are on a journey of reincarnation and we should teach them differently at different stages on that journey. Rudolf Steiner taught that up to the age of around seven, children could be harmed (in karmic terms) by learning to read and write, that they are unable to think in a reasoned way until they reach their teens. I learned that children in a Steiner school have no textbooks, no access to computers until they reach 14 (damaging to karma again) that they have the same teacher for eight years, that they have a two hour lesson daily from the age of seven, and that in the lower years the class teacher dictates work to be written by children in their books.
Now, coming from a state school I found this worrying. I have been a teacher for fifteen years. I currently teach year two, have recently been rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, in a school with outstanding attainment, progress and behaviour. I lead Science and ICT within the school and teach a creative, child-led curriculum. The children I teach are happy, lively and interested; they have a thirst for knowledge and know where to find it. Every single one of the children in my class (aged from 6-7) writes independently, reads well and loves it. They also love finding things out for themselves using the internet or a book, they can reason and question evidence, and they are most certainly not harmed by any of it – in fact I would go so far as to say that it enriches their lives. I am in no way qualified to teach these children when they are 14 and would not want to, my specialism is Key Stage one. I cannot see how any teacher can have the subject knowledge to teach from ages 7-14.
I sent the proposed Free School an email expressing my concerns and the next day had a reply, one of the founders would like to meet with me. The following weekend I met with Ewout Van-Manen with the aim of finding out how much the Steiner pedagogy was to influence his ‘Ecology’ school. I wanted to reassure myself that the school was needed in the area, that all of the staff would hold qualified teacher status, that science was being taught properly and that the school would be accountable.
We met on a farm near Woodbridge, a beautiful part of Suffolk full of lofty barn conversions and four-wheel drives, where a woodcraft day was being held to promote the Ecology School. I took my best friend for company (I don’t usually go meeting strangers in the woods), a note book and a week’s worth of reading, talking and fact finding.
2. Location and Teacher training (or not) at Fullfledge Ecology School…
My first question was whether there is a need for Fullfledge – there’s no exact location mentioned on the website so I was unable to check roll numbers at local schools. According to Ewout Van-Manen it will be in an area where local schools are pretty full and would be built in the grounds of an independent school. He was unwilling to tell me which one as the proposal had not yet been discussed with that schools’ staff or parents, which I found extremely worrying, especially as Van Manen also said resources would be shared. I can’t see how Fullfledge will ‘fit in’ with the local community if it allies itself so strongly with an independent school – rather than with local state schools. In my view, this school will take children, and funding, away from an already financially tight state sector and cause divisions in the community. I suggested that perhaps the Fullfledge Trust could work with the existing state schools, providing ecology lessons and financially supporting their green efforts but was told that this was a political matter and not up for discussion.
My next question was about staff and their qualifications. Currently, so far as I am aware, there is no tertiary educational establishment in the UK offering Steiner teacher training and QTS (qualified teacher status, a legal requirement of all state teachers), so I asked what training the teachers at Fullfledge would have. Van-Manen replied that all teachers would be Steiner trained (where? – certainly not in public institutions in the UK), and that he would be working to gain them QTS, possibly with a University in Canterbury. There is currently no way of gaining QTS in the UK without doing either a PGCE or three year teacher training. The thought of my child, any child, being taught for eight years by an adult (I can’t call them a teacher as they have no professional teaching qualification) who has not been trained to teach in a recognised tertiary establishment is alarming to say the least. Van-Manen appears to put Steiner training above accepted teacher training, which I feel demonstrates a disregard for qualifications, a disregard which became more evident later in the discussion.
I asked about the people who were involved in the setting up of the school and in particular who the Principal would be. It appeared that I was talking to him. However, Principal Designate Ewout Van- Manen holds no professional qualifications and has no experience of the state education provision he is arguing against. He is a Minister at the Universal Life Church though, so that’s a relief. Should you wish to be a Minister too, just submit your name and email address and they will ordain you, my friend had his cat ordained last week.
3. Steiner’s influence on Fullfledge Ecology School
On the Fullfledge site a few educational influences are listed – Sir Ken Robinson, Satish Kumar (of the ‘treeness of the tree’) as well as Rudolf Steiner – although Steiner was more an occultist than an educator. I contacted Sir Ken Robinson via twitter and asked him several times to confirm that he endorsed the use of his name in connection with this initiative, he did not reply. A cynic might suggest that citing Robinson is a ‘hook’ to attract parents who might think he was somehow involved – and who might therefore not ask difficult questions.
I asked about the Steiner element of Fullfledge and how much of an influence Steiner pedagogy would have on the school. Ewout Van-Manen replied that the Steiner view of child development was “best practise” and non-negotiable and that the school would follow the Steiner curriculum. I wondered how this was not a Steiner school and why the fact of this did not feature more prominently on the website. In my opinion, the only thing setting Fullfledge apart from a regular Steiner school is that the initiative is not a member of the UK Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF), a prerequisite for including Steiner in a school’s name. Van-Manen said that many parents felt secure with the Steiner curriculum but that SWSF schools have become ‘associated with dogma’ with which Fullfledge did not wish to be associated, as (he said) “Most of the things you read on the internet about Steiner schools are true. “
If Van-Manen is right – and he was candid about having been Waldorf educated (he also appears never to have worked outside a Steiner environment) – we really should be concerned if a Steiner school in all but name gains public money on a technicality. How would Van-Manen ensure that all his Steiner trained teachers (trained in private institutions or abroad) renounce the unfortunate ‘dogma’? And what would be Fullfledge’s relationship with the Steiner movement in England, especially with the state funded Steiner Academy Hereford, which gained its funding on the back of a 2005 government report and presumably, as a member of the SWSF, endorses this dogma – dogma the Woods Report did not baulk at? Plus Hereford’s Vice Principal, Clarence Harvey, is listed by Fullfledge as ‘advising on curriculum’ and Professor Philip Woods, one of the authors of the Woods Report, is advising on ‘Leadership and Management’. I would question his judgement thus far.
In spite of his reservations about members of the SWSF, Ewout Van-Manen has only recently resigned from his long-standing job at Michael Hall Steiner School where he was Education Administrator. He is still listed as such on another Steiner school’s whistle-blowing policy document and as Vice-Chair of Trustees at Greenwich Steiner School (he is listed on the Fullfledge site as Director of Development at Greenwich). Both these schools are members of the SWSF. Van Manen is also a lay inspector for the School Inspection Service, which conducts inspections on behalf of Ofsted of SWSF member schools. His last inspection for the SIS was at Alder Bridge Steiner School in May this year.
Van-Manen and I discussed the Steiner curriculum, which stipulates a two hour main lesson from the age of seven. Although this lesson will include different elements (such as movement and art) I still feel that this is too long for a young child to maintain attention on one subject. Child ‘development’ based on Steiner’s teachings requires that certain elements are taught at certain times based on physical changes in a child’s body. The example I was given by Ewout Van-Manen was that at around the age of 11 children lose their pot bellies, becoming taller and leaner. At this time they should be taught about the Greeks because developmentally ‘they are Greeks’. Instead, I believe that children should be taught about the Ancient Greeks as part of a larger topic which could be linked through mathematics, science, art, writing and sport to the developments of that era; building on the children’s prior learning and their ability to understand complex ideas – NOT when they lose their pot bellies! Steiner believed that the time at which a child was ready to learn to write was when they gained adult teeth. My training and experience shows me that this stage is reached when children progress from mark making to wanting to learn to write, which most children at state school choose to do in reception class (4-5), this is not connected in any way with their teeth! Steiner schools withhold ICT teaching until the age of 14, at which age most children will be using a computer at home. I suggested to Van-Manen that he had a responsibility to teach pupils how to use a computer in a discerning way and how to stay safe; apparently this was not something that had been considered either by himself or the Fullfledge Vice Principal Designate, Steiner parent Marisa Formicola, who also put in an appearance. Van-Manen did suggest that he would discourage parents from allowing their children to watch TV or use a computer; he went so far as to state that computers are alien to childhood, as they ‘contain someone else’s interpretation’. This seems naive to say the least.
I began to get the impression that knowledge, unless gained specifically from a (possibly unqualified) class teacher was not encouraged; the idea of a mystical, esoteric belief system based upon reincarnation and karma being the foundation of a school which does not encourage finding out information through books, TV or the internet was beginning to make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I decided to ask about science.
4. Science (and evidence) at Fullfledge Ecology School….
I had a particular interest in how science would be taught at Fullfledge, as this is my own specialism. I often link the three disciplines of science, art and writing in my classroom, using an image as a starting point to promote language and discussion and then creating art, doing writing and learning the accompanying scientific knowledge or concept which stems from the image. This is a method which has been successfully trialled in Norfolk. At my school, I have lead training on science through play and the use of discovery boxes and will be working with the Science Learning Centre to deliver courses to a wider area. So it was worrying to hear what little regard Ewout Van-Manen holds for the concept of evidence. Here’s a representative sample of quotes from our conversation:
‘Experience is true, if you read something you don’t know it.’
‘I treated my own children homeopathically and know it works.’ (This in response to my comments on the Cochrane and other reviews of homeopathy (see here for resources) which show no proof for its efficacy beyond the placebo effect. Fullfledge Vice Principal designate Marisa Formicola is also a homeopath.)
‘I would hope to see someone trained in movement therapy, eurythmy or braingym, in my school.’ (Braingym has been proved bunkum, as for eurythmy…)
‘You can find evidence for anything if you look for it.’
A lack of regard for evidence, evaluated according to proper criteria, demonstrates a lack of any kind of scientific thought. The impression I got from Van-Manen was that learning about scientific theories would stem from learning about a scientist (all good so far) and ‘what they believed’ (becoming a bit flaky), with no emphasis on what is now currently held to be true or which theories have been accepted as such by society as a whole (very worrying). Of course you encourage children to find things out for themselves and give them the tools to do so, but how are they to know how to evaluate their own findings if the person at the head of the school is unable (and frankly unwilling) to do so? Not only is the prospective Principal of Fullfledge Ecology School not a trained teacher, he was in my estimation poorly educated himself. An ‘Ecology’ school steeped in pseudoscience (and Steiner’s Spiritual Science) is a negative step. The need for scientific literacy has never been greater.
5. Accountability, OfStEd, Qualifications
As a state funded school Fullfledge will be subject to regular inspections, apparently by Ofsted, not by the SIS. I have watched some Steiner lessons from a school in Ireland, posted on YouTube. I have never seen such terrible teaching, for the following reasons:
- No discussion
- Rote ‘learning’
- Copying work from the board
- No interaction
- Poorly motivated, uninspired children
- Dull , expressionless teacher
- Dull voices
- Dull lessons in an uninspiring classroom
Were Ofsted to observe the lessons featured here, as they observed mine, the teacher would fail. There is no actual learning taking place as the children are already aware of the answers to the questions asked, the teacher is just reminding them of what they already know. I see no evidence of the wonderful individual nurturing which this education system purports to do better than a state school, I see no evidence of enjoyment of learning, and in fact I see no evidence of any actual learning taking place at all. The work the children are producing is years behind that of a state school child and I would expect a five year old to be able to copy a drawing and copy a word.
The Principal Designate of Fullfledge Ecology school, Ewout Van-Manen, told me that his Free School would have an issue with year 2 SATs testing. I would like to suggest that as this testing predates the ‘developmental stage’ at which Fullfledge would begin teaching children to read and write this is a master stroke in understatement. He did say that they would ‘find a way round it’, and mentioned that at Hereford Steiner Academy most of the parents had ‘kept their children off on the day of the test’ – this was no revelation. Van-Manen was very surprised to discover (I told him, btw) that as it is teacher assessment and not SAT scores which are submitted, this should have had no effect on their inclusion in the league tables. Once again, his lack of knowledge of basic rules and of the state system generally was evident. If the Principal of a school finds it acceptable to flout the rules on data submission how can this school be tracked in order to prove it provides value for money to the tax payer, or a quality education to children?
Children at Fullfledge will be taking the EBacc at 16, which will include 7 GCSEs. As there will be no data tracking through regular assessment I am unsure as to how children’s progression will be monitored – will the results at 16 come as a surprise? Will children and teachers know what a child knows and what they need to learn next in order to achieve? How will teachers report to parents and what will this be based upon? Will parents be able to compare their child’s progression to other children of a similar age in a state school? I don’t think this has been considered, but if the Principal is not qualified, has no experience of state education, and ‘only knows what he has experienced’, how can it have been considered?
There are so many things wrong with the proposed Fullfledge Free School educationally, I’ve hardly started. Lack of qualified staff (including the Principal Designate), lack of assessment, poor teaching methods based on the dubious doctrines of Rudolph Steiner and lack of clarity as to what the school is really all about. Flash words like ‘ecology’, references to (expensive) ‘Green Schools’ elsewhere – Van-Manen was initially keen to compare his project to the Green School Bali, for all its positive attributes a luxury private school – whose consultant director Ronald Stone OBE is cited as ‘advising on curriculum’ at Fullfledge. What may have seemed a business opportunity should by now, at least in my opinion, be looking less than positive. The real influence, I would suggest, lies with those already sympathetic to the Steiner movement.
In my view, the Fullfledge initiative publicly distances itself from Steiner schools but – as it intends to teach a Steiner curriculum, using Steiner trained staff, and to adhere to Steiner’s barmy stages of child development, it is clearly a Steiner school. It appears that it will teach children to be open to pseudoscience and that it will use pseudoscientific methods (such as braingym), not differentiating between weight and quality of evidence. The future Principal appears not to believe in attending to other people’s evidence unless it fits in with what he already ‘knows’, there is no weighing up of validity – instead the cherry-picking of evidence, evidence which is largely anecdotal. I am sure that Mr Van-Manen and his team truly think that what they are doing will be of great benefit but I believe that if it were allowed to go ahead, it would fail. Ewout Van-Manen to my mind demonstrated a shocking lack of awareness of the state system and how it works, he doesn’t appear to have any recognised teaching qualifications and no experience of any other system of education other than his own, which was in a Steiner school.
I believe that this school is a test for the Steiner Waldorf movement, to try and get through the Free Schools process under the blanket of an ‘Ecology School’ (what is that anyway?) setting a precedent which other Steiner schools could follow. Van-Manen told me that he once joined the Anthroposophical Association to further his career and that he has recently left, but this peculiar fact doesn’t detract from the influence of Rudolf Steiner, whose occult ideas clearly inform the ethos of the Fullfledge initiative.
I sincerely hope that this school never opens. Aside from setting education back about 100 years and taking money away from perfectly good, evidence-based, accountable state schools, the website itself will draw in parents who want a freer education but haven’t done their homework. The Fullfledge surface message is attractive; peel back the layers and the core is rotten. This school seems set to fail children and that is my real concern – children don’t really get to make a choice about where they are educated, and once they are old enough to make that decision it will be too late.