State-funded Steiner schools teach science from book sceptical of evolution, give homeopathy to students

The Steiner Academy Hereford, the first state-funded Steiner school, teaches science from a curriculum book sceptical of evolution and gives homeopathy to students, the British Humanist Association (BHA) can reveal. The revelations come as a result of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to the school by the BHA and other campaigners. The news comes the same week as Frome Steiner School opens as the second state-funded Steiner school and the first Steiner Free School, and not long after Steiner Academy Exeter was ‘pre-approved’ to open as a Free School from 2013. The Exeter Academy is proposed by a team originating from Exeter Steiner School, a private school which has used the same curriculum book as Hereford and has also run a homeopathy clinic for students. The BHA has expressed concern about the quality of science education in the schools and the promotion of unevidenced medicines to students.

Anthroposophy

Steiner schools are based on the works and teachings of Austrian esoterisist and mystic Rudolf Steiner. Steiner founded Anthroposophy, or ‘spiritual science’, in which he postulated that it is possible to objectively comprehend the spiritual world by cultivating a form of clairvoyance. Anthroposophy involves belief in karma and reincarnation as well as support for alternative medicines.

The DfE have told the BHA that they have gained assurances from the three schools that they won’t teach anthroposophy. However, this misunderstands the purpose of anthroposophy, which is never taught directly to students and parents even in private schools, most of whom will never have heard of it: instead, anthroposophy informs what the teachers teach.

Furthermore, the assurances the DfE have received are irreconcilable with the national body, the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship’s membership criteria for schools, which demands that amongst staff there should have been ‘adequate preparation, including Anthroposophical study’ and states that ‘an Anthroposophical impulse lies at the heart of planning for the school, including the Waldorf curriculum’. All three schools have signed up to these criteria, and the impact of Anthroposophy elsewhere is evident. In addition, the staff application form for the Hereford Academy asks applicants to provide, as ‘additional information to support your application’, details of ‘Your awareness of Anthroposophy’.

Curriculum at Hereford

The Hereford Academy opened in 2008 and does not offer any science GCSEs, but instead pupils study a BTEC in Ecology Studies. The BHA was told that ‘The school implements its Curriculum through the schemes of work as detailed in The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum edited by Martyn Rawson and Tobias Richter.’ In one Life Science lesson, the book says that ‘Creation stories give an holistic image of the origins of the earth, plants, animals and human beings’. In another, it says that ‘The Darwinian mechanism delivers clarifying power within a certain range of phenomena, but it is rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics and young people need to emerge from school with a clear sense of its limits.’

The rest of the science curriculum is also cause for concern. Other examples include:

    • In Chemistry lessons, homeopathy is described as ‘a good example of an effect that cannot be explained by the dominant [atomic] model’. The teaching of ‘homeopathic and/or other models of the interaction of matter and life’ is specifically advocated. Homeopathy is based on the idea that a substance that would normally cause a disease would, if highly diluted, cure that disease. Homeopathy is scientifically implausible, and evidence overwhelmingly shows that it works no better than placebo.
    • In Life Sciences, the book says ‘The circulation of blood is not a closed system and the pump model is not sufficient to understand the circulation of the blood and the sensitivity of the heart to the emotions.’ This reflects Steiner’s teaching in other books that ‘The heart is not a pump … basically the heart is a sense organ.’
    • In Life Sciences, the book advocates teaching ‘the limitations of the “germ” theory, which omits the part played by the immune system and the degree to which this is strengthened by exposure to illness.’ The movement has formally gone from a position of opposition to vaccines to one of parental choice – although surely schools, with responsibility for children’s wellbeing, should advocate vaccination. However, in practice, the Steiner movement is still somewhat hostile, and the Health Protection Agency regards Steiner schools as unvaccinated communities.
    • Geometry includes the teaching of ‘counter space’, which is a specifically Anthroposophical construction that allows links to Steiner’s spirit world. In other books, Steiner describes ‘the relationship between geometric studies and developing direct perception of spiritual realities’.

It is unclear the extent to which these portions of the curriculum book are actually taught; however, it nonetheless remains the case that this is the only curriculum book the school uses, and is specifically cited by the school as being the basis of the science curriculum. Another campaigner, Mark Hayes, asked specifically about what is taught in science and was told that the same book ‘is about as comprehensive as you can get and what we use as a guide to what we teach when.’

The Hereford Academy does not have to follow the rule which applies to Free Schools against teaching pseudoscience in any subject, which was brought in to prevent the teaching of creationism. This is because the Academy’s funding agreement is older than that rule.

Alternative medicine at Hereford

Furthermore, the school has extensive alternative medicine policies, including a specific policy on the administration of homeopathic remedies, including for burns. The remedies are only given with parental permission.

The school employs an Anthroposophical doctor to prescribe the medicine. Although it does not appear that this has been prescribed at the school, Anthroposophical medicine is best known for the belief that mistletoe can cure cancer. Earlier this year, the University of Aberdeen generated controversy when it considered establishing an Anthroposophical unit; the plans were subsequently dropped.

As a result of these issues, the BHA contacted the DfE and asked them what regulation there is of the health policies of state schools. The DfE replied that there is none: 2005 guidance on the matter has been withdrawn by the Coalition, and this at any rate did not mention alternative medicine or efficacy of treatments.

The first principal of the new Frome Academy will be Trevor Mepham, who has left his job as principal of the Hereford Academy to take up the post.

Exeter Academy

Previously the BHA signed a letter published in the Observer expressing concerns about the group, following on from which the BHA met with the Free Schools team at the Department for Education and set out the concerns now being publicised. However, the Government subsequently went on to approve the Exeter Academy.

This is despite the fact that Exeter Steiner School also cites the same book in its curriculum policy. Further, it has, in the past had a homeopathy drop-in clinic for students. The school has also had a ‘celebrated nutritionist and alternative therapist’ talk to parents ‘about how we can boost our immune system naturally. The discussion will also cover the issue of childhood vaccinations.’ Another talk by the same speaker was titled, ‘How to strengthen your immune system—is immunisation necessary?’ The school claims on its website that it ‘will neither promote nor teach… anthroposophy’, but also has an Anthroposophical Doctor and an Anthroposophical study group.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘It is gravely concerning that the only book Hereford Academy uses espouses views so inconsistent with established science – how can pupils receive a vigorous science education under these circumstances? It is also gravely concerning that these schools provide alternative medicines such as homeopathy, thus legitimising belief in cures which do not work. Not only is this bad for education and a waste of money, but lay homeopaths have been consistently exposed as prescribing their pills instead of conventional medicine for serious conditions such as malaria, so it may prove extremely dangerous in later life.

‘We raised our concerns with the Government some time ago, only to see the Exeter Academy subsequently approved. We hope the Government will review the decision to back Exeter gaining state funding, and scrutinise in more detail the curricula and health policies of Hereford and Frome.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson at [email protected] or on 0781 55 89 636.

Read The TES article, ‘Homeopathy? Sorry, we’re just not swallowing it’, 14 September 2012: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6290223

In May, the BHA was a signatory to a letter in The Observer expressing concern at the prospect of further state-funded Steiner schools. Amongst others, the letter was also signed by Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter; David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London; and the science writer Simon Singh: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1035

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.