The Resistible Rise of Steiner Education in the UK

It has been reported today that Canterbury Steiner School is to close as it is no longer financially viable. It would appear that they cannot get enough children into this independent, fee-paying school to keep it running. This comes only a matter of weeks after the school appeared confident that it could attract many new entrants and expand.

Canterbury is not the only Steiner school in the UK that is in trouble. This comes during a time when the Steiner/Waldorf movement was trying to expand in the UK. The history of this esoteric and occult education movement can be traced back to the early twentieth century. For most of this time, schools have been fairly small, independently funded, private schools situated in areas where the cult of Anthroposophy thrived. However, this last decade has seen a move into the publicly funded sector. The first tentative steps were under Blair and the Academy programme (Hereford). However, this move fully took off under Gove’s Free School programme after intense lobbying from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sisters. Since, then Steiner Free Schools have opened in Bristol, Frome and Exeter.

If you are not familiar with Steiner schools or think they are some sort of hippyish alternative education, then I suggest you read my quick introduction to Rudolf Steiner and his schools. In short, Steiner Schools are based on a curriculum driven by the esoteric and occult views of their spiritualist founder. The schools strive to focus on the spiritual needs of children based around ideas of karma and reincarnation. All aspects of the schools from structure, decorations, discipline, management, curriculum and festival celebrations are part of their religious philosophy called Anthroposophy. This religion believes humans exist in a spiritual hierarchy of existence where race is an indicator of spiritual maturity – naturally, given the early 20th Century Germanic origins of the cult, with Aryans at the pinnacle. Parents and children and not told of the nature of these foundational beliefs. Anthroposophy is an initiated esoteric and occult belief system.

A few months ago we learned how Kings Langley Rudolf Steiner School had been given an appalling Ofsted inspection report. This follows from a  inspection report that resulted the school from being banned from accepting new children. Independent Steiner Schools are usually inspected by SIS –  a tame inspection service set up to inspect schools ‘of a special character’. Typically, this involves people already involved in Steiner education. However this time Ofsted itself insisted on an unannounced inspection.

The May inspection is probably the worst inspection report I have ever come across.  Critically, it describes how parents had raised concerns about child saftey, the inspectors had made recommendations for improvements and the management had ignored these demands.

  • Leaders rely too heavily on the advice of their solicitors when making some crucial safeguarding decisions. They do not consider carefully enough the potential consequences to children of the actions they then take. At the worst, they have not considered known risk factors because they are uninformed of all the facts. This is because the trustees have failed to ensure that critical information about historical safeguarding failings are discussed openly with those who need to know.

  • Leaders have failed to identify that the culture of close relationships at the school puts pupils at risk. Professional boundaries between staff, parents and pupils are not maintained. Staff, including senior leaders, do not follow the school’s own policies on social media access. Parents arrange for pupils to see their teachers, and former teachers, off the school site. This culture is unchanged, despite known serious safeguarding failings.

  • Leaders have underplayed and misrepresented the school’s safeguarding failings to parents. On more than one occasion, they have publicly stated that the failure is simply one of ‘record keeping’. They have also stated that ‘no transgressions or wrongdoings were found to have taken place’ and have implied that former parents who expressed concerns have misrepresented the position. These messages are not supported by the inspection evidence.

In short, basic safeguarding measures are deliberately ignored and parents are lied to about it.

I have written extensively on these exact risk factors in Steiner Schools. This is not the only Steiner school in the UK to have come under such criticism about safeguarding. An Aberdeen school closed over its failure to provide proper safeguarding management. The Exeter Academy had a bad report and has come under extensive criticism from parents. The Frome Academy is currently experiencing parental concerns with parents threatening to ‘leave in droves’. A Steiner kindergarten in Stroud has recently been found to be ‘inadequate’. Again this school had been told to improve and the management failed to address the issues.

How can such a small number of schools be failing so badly? The reason is that their failings are a feature of the school. Steiner education is inherently chaotic, anti-educational and ill-disciplined. These are the very features that are sold as ‘free-spirited’ and ‘creative’. They are no such thing. Steiner schools deliberately abdicate their responsibilities to children and parents. There is a deliberate lack of management, a deliberate impulse to prevent children learning basic skills, and a deliberate refusal to engage in the ‘karma’ of children’s behaviours and fates. These schools choose to behave in the ways criticised by Ofsted and that is why the inspectors see no improvements after damning reports.

My opinion is that the desire to expand into the publicly funded school space is at the heart of these problems and I said so at the time. There were two big problems with this. Firstly, Steiner education requires specialist Steiner trained teachers. The curriculum is not like other schools. Unlike other Free Schools, Steiner schools cannot just hope to recruit from the general teacher population. A teacher trained to teach kids to read would be somewhat aghast that the requirement of the Steiner world to do everything you can to prevent children reading until their adult teeth had appeared. An IT teacher would not know what to make of the Steiner belief that computers are inhabited by the spirit of Ahriman and children should avoid them until their soul has achieved the required incarnation. An art teacher would be at the very least bemused at the banning of black crayons, the need for rounded corners on paper and the strict and limited styles and media allowed. All of these restrictions are based on their esoteric understanding of the spiritual world.

Stretching staff too far would also have management consequences. Steiner schools do not have a traditional management structure but a council of teachers. This may be at the heart of the problems inspectors find in identifying clear accountability for safety and other issues. Financial controls are also notoriously weak with reports of shoestring budgets and lack of financial discipline.

The second big problem is with the level of scrutiny that public funding brings. A traditional Steiner school in an ‘alternative’ town like Totnes or Stroud, could manage to control bad events and coerce parents. In a state school in a large town such control is not so possible. People ask questions and the media become involved. Not least that activists against the schools are able to reach wide audiences such as the Stop Steiner in Stroud blog. Professor David Colquhoun says that Melanie Byng’s posts on the popular and influential DCScience blog are the most popularly read. On my own blog here, my Steiner posts have had over half a million readers.

The future of Steiner schools in the UK now looks more uncertain that it has been in its history. The Free School programme has shut down now with the government signalling yesterday that no new money will go into it. Ofsted appears to have woken up to the fact that placing inspections in the hands of tame inspectors is not good news and is not looking very closely at Steiner Schools. This does not bode well.

Steiner Schools have to abide by the Anthroposophical doctrines of the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship. If they do not, they cannot call themselves Steiner/Waldorf Schools. The inspectors are now demanding that they break with their traditional views on many aspects – not least child protection. Schools have a simple choice: to abandon the Steiner approach or to fold. If they do abandon Steiner oversight, they need to be clear with parents what that means. And I suspect that is not going to be an easy transition given the lack of experience, talent and management experience in the system.


36 Comments on The Resistible Rise of Steiner Education in the UK

  1. What exactly is happening in Frome? The local paper has gone down the pan recently & I havnt heard any stories of a parents revolt

  2. This is a garbage article and totally misleading and inaccurate in regards to Waldorf education. What a shame. I encourage people to actually read about Waldorf educational philosophy, it is not clearly communicated by the idiot who wrote this article.

    • I am always happy to be corrected if I have made an error. Perhaps you could be explicit and say what is wrong?

      • ‘This follows from a inspection report that resulted the school from being banned from accepting new children.'(sic)
        Not so!
        The school was threatened with a ban, it was never imposed. The school is taking new children as normal.

        There are things that need to change in the way some Steiner Schools are managed, and some of your criticisms are valid.
        It is a shame you cannot be less ideologically driven and be more fact-based in your criticisms.
        Or if you do want to engage in ideological discourse at least make the effort to fairly represent what you are criticising. It would give much greater validity to what you say.

        “…religious philosophy called Anthroposophy. This religion believes humans exist in a spiritual hierarchy of existence where race is an indicator of spiritual maturity – naturally, given the early 20th Century Germanic origins of the cult, with Aryans at the pinnacle. Parents and children and not told of the nature of these foundational beliefs. Anthroposophy is an initiated esoteric and occult belief system.”

        Every point you make in this passage is misleading. You could only call Anthroposophy a religion if, for example, you think that commitment to a political philosophy such as that embedded in the Conservative party is also a religion. There are values, beliefs, rituals, mores and norms around being a Conservative, but that does not make it into a religion.
        Neither does any university that I know of grace Anthroposophy with the title of ‘Philosophy’, whatever the anthroposophists may claim for themselves.

        “… humans exist in a spiritual hierarchy of existence where race is an indicator of spiritual maturity..”
        This is an interpretation of Steiner’s views not shared by everyone familiar with his writings. There may be anthroposophists who believe this, just the same as there have been and are people of every race and class around the world who believe that race is an indicator of some form of superiority.
        But it is NOT a defining feature of people whose thinking is inspired by Rudolf Steiner. I have met very few who believe such a thing. My last statement here is anecdotal, but I have long and varied experience of people inspired by anthroposophy.

        “Parents and children and (sic) not told of the nature of these foundational beliefs.”
        I agree that Steiner schools have been very bad at explaining the basis on which they operate, part of the reason being that there is great variation in what the teachers do believe – there is not much orthodoxy of belief – rather a shared approach to the process of education. It is quite possible to educate in ‘the Steiner way’, without any commitment to Anthroposophy.

        “Anthroposophy is an initiated esoteric and occult belief system.”
        You don’t explain what you mean by this sentence and I am wondering if you have chosen these words, ‘initiated’, ‘esoteric’, ‘occult’… for their shock value.
        Steiner does talk about initiation, giving the word a very specific meaning, but there is no suggestion that anyone who is inspired by his teachings either is or should be an initiate. The trouble with this word is that it stinks of weird practices often used to gain admittance to closed groups such as the Bullingdon club at Oxford, or Pop at Eton or Freemasons or such like.
        I don’t know any anthroposophists who regard themselves as initiates. There are no strange rituals anyone has to go through to ‘belong’.

        The foundational world view of Anthroposophy is only ‘esoteric’ because so few people in the west are familiar with it. A well educated Asian person familiar with the spirituality of the east would not find it to be esoteric, maybe a bit unusual but not particularly weird.

        We live in a country which claims to value freedom of speech, so everyone has the right to criticise Steiner schools, just as one could criticise English public schools, Catholic schools, Quaker schools, Muslim schools, etc., and I support your assumption that receiving public money brings an intensification of accountability, but you would be well advised to get your facts right about events surrounding the schools and the ideological foundations of the schools if you want to be effective in your polemic.

      • tomhartshea – your reply is very long and typical of many people who defend anthroposophy. I tend to classify such people into two sorts: those that are on the periphery and are not initiated and so do not know; or those that are deep in the world of anthroposophy and deliberately obfuscate and deceive about its nature. I do not know which you are.

        Let me pick up on just one point for now. You say,

        ““Anthroposophy is an initiated esoteric and occult belief system.”
        You don’t explain what you mean by this sentence and I am wondering if you have chosen these words, ‘initiated’, ‘esoteric’, ‘occult’… for their shock value.”

        Now anyone familiar with rudolf Steiner will know one of his more important books is called ‘Occult Science’. The use of the word ‘occult’ is his, not mine.

        Let’s take another work: “How to Know Higher Worlds.” This book is subtitled, “A Modern Path of Initiation”. So again, Steiner’s words not mine. Chapter Five is called “REQUIREMENTS FOR ESOTERIC TRAINING”

        Spotting a pattern here?

        So tell me. Are you ignorant of the work of Rudolf Steiner? Or are you trying to mislead people here?

      • You need to read a little more carefully.

        I said, “Steiner does talk about initiation, giving the word a very specific meaning,..” And if you actually read ‘Knowledge of Higher Worlds’ you will see what that meaning is. My comment is aimed at the negative associations many people have for the word. The exercises given in Knowledge of Higher Worlds develop powers of concentration, thinking, imagination and will. They do not lead to membership of a cult or elite group.
        If you have a scientific background you may know that ‘Occult’ is used in astronomy and medicine to mean ‘obscured’, in the sense of hidden from view. Steiner was using the word in that sense, not in the Dennis Wheatley or Alistair Crowley magical sense.
        I focused on those three words because I felt you were using them for their negative association.

        I am interested in speaking honestly and not in trying to persuade.

      • Humpty-Dumptyism with words is not being honest. I use the exact words Steiner does to describe his religion and I am sure people will understand then for what they are.

        Let’s look at these words in a little more detail.

        Occult – you claim this is just about things being obscured. However, Steiner and myself use the word to describe a world hidden from our ordinary senses of spirits, demons, angels and other beings. Steiner describes a whole cosmology of ‘Higher Worlds’ that are hidden from our view and it is only through clairvoyance can these worlds be understood. I think most people will understand the word ‘occult’ in these terms.

        Initiated – Steiner described how this world could only be understood through a journey of spiritual discovery and he held the techniques to do so. At the highest level of initiation into his world is the First Class – the Blue Card holding highest initiates who are given access to Steiner’s last meditations. How else do you think people might unerstand ‘initiated’ in this context?

        Esoteric – steiner describes a vast world of hidden history, racial development, spiritual hierarchies, prophesies and so on. He descibes the roles of the various spiritual actors including Lucifer, Ahriman, Christ, the Archangels etc. What else does esoteric mean in this context?

        So, are you misleading yet again to say that Steiner was not a mystic in the Dennis Wheatley or Alistair Crowley way? Are you yet again ignorant of Steiner or again trying to misdirect. It is getting hard to accept the former.

      • Tom – I think it would be better if you introduced yourself, then we would know who we’re talking to.

        I highly recommend that every prospective Steiner parent and critic reads ‘Knowledge of Higher Worlds’.

        ‘The exercises given in Knowledge of Higher Worlds develop powers of concentration, thinking, imagination and will. They do not lead to membership of a cult or elite group.’

        Well, not necessarily, in the sense that it wouldn’t happen automatically. You would still have to apply.

        ‘The Anthroposophical Society looks upon the School of Spiritual Science at Dornach as the centre of its work. This School will be composed of three classes. Members of the Society will — at their request — be admitted to the School after a period of membership to be determined in each case by those responsible at the Goetheanum. They thus gain entrance to the first class of the School of Spiritual Science. Applicants will be received into the second or third class respectively when those responsible at the Goetheanum deem them ripe for admission.’

      • ‘I use the exact words Steiner does to describe his religion’, -except that Steiner himself was concerned to state that it is not a religion.

        I notice you have not corrected the misinformation you published when you said that a restriction had been placed on the licence of the Kings Langley School to admit pupils.

        No such restriction has been imposed.

        Melanie’s quote is a fair one but all it means is that if you want to join the School of Spiritual Science then you have to ASK, and it is up to the ‘Class readers’ whether to admit you or not – like getting into some universities. You have an interview and they decide if they think you are suitable. ‘Suitable’ means they think you can be trusted with certain meditations/verses which are only to be passed on verbally with permission from the reader who gave them to you. In fact the verses (or Mantrams ) are all available online or to buy in a big purple book.

        The significance of joining the School is that one has a different experience when hearing the verses/meditations than when reading them.
        You don’t have to promise anything or do anything other than to ‘stand for anthroposophy in the world’ – which is left undefined, and not to pass the verses on without permission. The content is NOT secret, you can find Frank Thomas Smith’s translation of the full sequence of ‘Lessons’ online, you can buy the book.

        Regarding the word Occult, yes, anthroposophy speaks of a hidden spiritual world, a world which this world is a part of. A bit like many religions, – except that there is no requirement to believe any of it. (unlike a religion)
        It is presented as an explanation for how human life has significance, and it gives form to the process of education on offer in the Steiner Schools. But I have never known any school try to hide that from any parent.

        If you look carefully, Melanie, you will see that I was a director of the Kings Langley Steiner School for just one year and three months, when I was on the Trustee body. I have been a Trustee there before in the early part of this century. And if you were as well up on your anthroposophy as Alicia, you would know that the Second and Third Classes do not exist 🙂

      • So, Tom We get to the heart of it. You come on this blog and tell me I am misleading people and then accuse me of using inappropriate words to describe Steiner. We see I have been quite accurate and you feign ignorance. ANd now we see you have actually been a manager of the school criticised above. Why did you not disclose this in the first place?

        So, I will echo what Melanie has said. Would you like to condemn what is going on at this school now and its appalling record on safeguarding? If not, why not? Why are the children not your first priority and why instead do you want to embark on misleading word games?

      • I didn’t say they did exist (I’ve never heard of them). It’s a historical document.

        Yes, you have been a Director of the Kings Langley Steiner School. If at any point you would like to express concern for the children who have been put at risk by the poor safeguarding at this school, or any concern for children at all, you can do so here where their parents can read your comments.

        ‘But I have never known any school try to hide that from any parent.’

        Now Tom: you know that isn’t true. And so do I, because I have lived it and I have witnessed it. This is a game to you, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

      • I would condemn poor safe-guarding and any form of child-abuse in any school, and clearly the school must address the concerns raised by OFSTED.

        You do not know what my actions were when I was a Trustee for Trustees actions are recorded as a body, not as individuals.

        It still remains that Andy has published and not retracted a statement which is not true about the school’s licence to admit children.

    • Compared to your unsubstantiated claims and ad-hominem attack, the original article seems much better informed – and it links to loads of further sources.

    • Somehow the words from a bitter person vomiting insults without any basic knowledge of Waldorf Steiner education and just like chinese whispers repeating some distorted information. This again and again is leaking and going viral but it need a to be stopped. Please find out by yourselves and male your own conclusions based on real facts

  3. Unbelievable! Whoever wrote this seems to have some sort of personal vendetta. The “knowledge” the author claims to have, is utter nonsense. Anthroposophy is not a religion nor a cult. In order to learn more the suggestion is to turn to more garbage articles but the same author. Pathetic! Hate much?

    • Heidi – you claim Anthroposophy is not a cult. How would you describe an occult, initiated, high control, religious belief system?

  4. This is the most useless article on Waldorf education that is both biased in opinion and research. Maybe try talking to the many successful people who have passed through Steiner education?
    Of course not every Steiner school is amazing, but the same goes for most public schools and many private and semi-private schools too. But that depends largely on teachers rather than the actual education philosophy. It’s false logic to say that because some Steiner schools are failing, all Steiner schools are bad.

    Also, brilliant work calling anthroposophy a cult – shock tactics are a great way to attract readers. It’s a shame that you have to make up facts just to attract readers though.

    I suggest you look up Swiss education, where you’ll find that the sort of education found in Waldorf schools is common everyday education here, and no one bats an eyelid because it works so well.

    Please educate yourself before writing crap like this.

    • It is funny that you should mention false logic. That a few successful people have visited Waldorf schools does not prove those schools are any good. The people might have been successful either way.

      • I went to the Steiner school in Kings Langley, I left aged twelve, I could barely read or write. I have to say, I believe that the article in the Watford Observer written last year, had a lot of truth in it, after all this is the school we are talking about. Doesn’t matter how you try and dress it up the school has failed these children miserably. My advice to this particular school, don’t you dare put video’s out begging for money, when you have enough already, and you’re not prepared to change or improve any safeguarding issues. You have missed an opportunity. How many chances do you want, seriously?

  5. As an ex member of the Anthroposical Society, and an ex teacher at a Steiner school, I was invited to join the First Class, a higher tier of membership. I naively asked what goes on at meetings. The ‘invitees’ made eye contact with each other and told me that I was obviously not yet ready to take that step up the spiritual ladder. I found the Steiner world to be both secretive and hierarchical, going right up to the Goetheanum. I liked the structure of the curriculum but the more I got to understand what lay behind it, the more alienated I became. I eventually left.


  6. Are these schools current – really? Why do the government allow these institutions to exist? Can I open a school dedicated to my God/beliefs? (EG, how much money will they give me to lie to students?). We need schooling untarnished by religion/fairies/karma, people can decide to join these occults when they are adults.

    Nick F.

  7. Doesn’t sound like the author has any real experience with Waldorf education or perhaps he is generalizing from a few isolated cases. My son has been in two Waldorf schools in Los Angeles and these schools were extremely disciplined, rigorous, and incredibly safe. There was much closer supervision of children than you would find in other schools and very high standards. I’m sure this varies from school to school, but the essence of Waldorf education is about creating strong bonds and relationships with teachers, fostering the creative spirit of children, promoting a love of learning and balancing the material focus of the world with strong moral values and character-building work. Please educate yourself about the practical aspects of this education rather than focusing on esoteric ideology (which never enters the classroom) and local scandal. Holistic educational paradigms are the best hope that we have of recovering from the mess that our world is currently in.

  8. What an arse hole. Both my kids went to steiner and loved it. They are normal and happy kids. No one ever tried to make us believe in a cult. Its just a school. The writer sounds like the they would be against kids running in the school yard as its against HSE regulations. Needs to get a life

    • Eamon I would suggest the only arsehole are people who want to paper over the cracks, deceive parents, let the children down and leave them open to abuse, ask for money because they’ve fail. I spent five years at this school in the 1970’s a long time ago but I can tell you as far as safeguarding and abuse the school in Kings Langley has hardly changed.

  9. …when Steiner was asked in 1919 (with the social devastation after world war I) by teachers in Waldorf/Germany to propose a new educational approach, he agreed under the condition that anthroposophy itself should never be teached in a Steiner School… I followed my daughter’s (and her classmates) Steiner education from Kindergarten until she went to university now. She told me just recently that when she is often asked what anthroposophy is, she doesn’t have a clue and can’t answer the questions. Steiner educator’s ( like myself) all have of course anthroposophical training but are given much flexibility in how to apply this training and knowledge in their own teaching.
    No way to call this education cult etc based!
    What a petty article from an extremist Steiner education hater…

  10. “anthroposophy itself should never be teached in a Steiner School”

    Here, we like to say “taught” but I’ll defer to you since you’re the teacher…

    The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Steiner himself taught teachers ways to slip Anthroposophy into their lessons. Here he is explaining:

    “You need to make the children aware that they are receiving the objective truth, and if this occasionally appears anthroposophical, it is not anthroposophy that is at fault.”
    Rudolf Steiner FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 495.

    He set the teacher up to be the most “authoritative person” in the child’s life – more than the child’s own parents. In that way, he prepared Waldorf teachers to establish the child’s world view for them. Nobody officially announces that what they teach is Anthroposophy – so your daughter had no idea she was immersed in it.

    I wrote an article about it here: It explains a lot about what you (not just you but lots of parents) didn’t notice about Waldorf education.

    I’m sure as a Waldorf teacher you will deny that you teach Anthroposophy to children – and I’ll reply by asking you what Eurythmy is.

  11. Thank you so much for educating me and others on this cult. Unfortunately, victims of cults usually don’t know they are victims until it’s too late.

  12. Steiner apologist, TomHartShea wrote:

    “ ‘… humans exist in a spiritual hierarchy of existence where race is an indicator of spiritual maturity..’
    This is an interpretation of Steiner’s views not shared by everyone familiar with his writings. There may be anthroposophists who believe this, just the same as there have been and are people of every race and class around the world who believe that race is an indicator of some form of superiority.
    But it is NOT a defining feature of people whose thinking is inspired by Rudolf Steiner. I have met very few who believe such a thing. My last statement here is anecdotal, but I have long and varied experience of people inspired by anthroposophy.”

    Tom must be suggesting that only racist Anthroposophists read this blog… because time and time again, we regular readers witness full-blown racists coming here defending Anthroposophy. One can pick any of the several Steiner articles here and read through the comments to verify this.

    Invariably, a racist will pop up explaining something along the lines of “It can’t be racist if it’s true” nonsense that betrays their full acceptance of Steiner’s racist doctrine. I don’t believe Tom when he says that racism isn’t a defining feature of people inspired by Rudolf Steiner. Racism is one of the tenets of Anthroposophy. Without the “physical” hierarchies to reflect the “spiritual” hierarchies Steiner imagined, Anthroposophy falls apart at its core. That is why Steiner followers cannot simply call Steiner a “racist” and distance themselves from his racism. It’s one of the main ingredients in Anthroposophy.

  13. Sadly, this school isn’t the only Waldorf school with problems. It seems many of these schools are unable to self-criticise, improve and make adjustments. The Waldorf education system has so much potential yet is overshadowed by the negatives. Our family has just left one Waldorf school as we didn’t trust the management or administration. There was a proportion of cult like followers at the school with a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ attitude. Feeling very dissolusioned.

  14. After seeing this years Ofsted report on the Steiner School at Kings Langley, there is still a safeguarding issue. There was still safeguarding issues when I was a pupil there over fourty years ago. In my opinion, children are still being let down dreadfully. Why still no back ground checks on new teachers? And they have the nerve to ask for more money to help their appeal. Shame on you

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