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Government forced to release briefings expressing serious concerns about racism and bullying in independent Steiner schools after losing Information Tribunal case against BHA

Briefings produced in 2010 by civil servants in the Department for Education (DfE) on the principle of whether or not Steiner schools should gain state funding through the Free Schools programme express serious concern about issues such as racism, systemic bullying, academic rigour, secrecy and whether or not the schools would be able to pass Ofsted inspections, the British Humanist Association (BHA) can today reveal. The two documents were obtained by the BHA after it won a case at the Information Tribunal last month, following on from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request the BHA submitted over two years ago. The BHA has challenged the subsequent decision to offer Steiner schools state funding.

The BHA has long-standing concerns about Steiner schools including pseudoscience on the curriculum (including scepticism of evolution and vaccinations and support for homeopathy), homeopathy being given to pupils by the schools’ ‘anthroposophical doctors’, and the fact that a number of private and at least one state school has opted out of providing vaccinations. The BHA is not aware of any other state schools offering homeopathy or opting out of vaccines.

But those concerns can now be added to by those found in the briefings the DfE has been forced to release:

  • On racism, officials describe some of Steiner’s writings as ‘racist and anti-Semitic’. It goes on to say that ‘the Department has received concerns from two parents surrounding the treatment of their mixed-race child at a Steiner school, including racist abuse by other pupils which the school allegedly failed to act upon despite repeated complaints, and the use of racial epithets by teachers. Officials met the parents who provided a large amount of material on the anthroposophical basis of Steiner pedagogy and its apparently racist nature… The materials indicate that the curriculum is structured around the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, called anthroposophy (spiritual science), which includes the belief in the reincarnation of the spirit through the races, from Black to Aryan… Racist elements of Steiner’s writings were highlighted in the material, including statements such as “blond hair actually bestows intelligence. In the case of fair people, less nourishment is driven into the eyes and hair; it remains instead in the brain and endows it with intelligence”.
  • On bullying, ‘A recurring theme in the material provided is that bullying is not tackled within Steiner schools. One parent complains that they witnessed a physical attack on their son where a teacher failed to intervene, and subsequently justified this approach by claiming the children were “working out their karma”. A teacher training document entitled How should bullying be handled? asks “can a child’s karma or destiny be that of a victim or bully? It is a child’s destiny to seek certain experiences to build his or her self-esteem and inner self. Should a potentially abusive situation be stopped, and if so, at what point?” It goes on to state “there are normal levels of aggressive behaviour particularly as children are exploring the cruel aspects of their nature. Every school provides the opportunity for some bullying to take place, as children test each other out and work out their roles in the classroom and playground relationships. 

    In addition to the material provided by parents, the Department’s Independent Schools team is aware of serious complaints of staff bullying pupils in 8 of the existing 25 registered independent Steiner schools. In several of the cases of bullying complaints, there is also a concern about the way the school has handled the allegations, failing to investigate accusations of bullying and physical abuse by teachers in some cases

    ‘In four Steiner schools, the Department has received complaints about physical abuse from teachers towards pupils, including spitting in a pupil’s face, making sexual innuendos and throwing a rounders bat at a pupil. At one school, a teacher was allowed to continue teaching for two days after a pupil reported that they had made inappropriate suggestions to them. The pupils were encouraged to visit the teacher at his home to deliver flowers and gifts and parents were asked if their sons and daughters could contribute towards a leaving gift. The school did refer the teacher to the local authority and he was arrested following an admission of guilt.

  • On secrecy, ‘A common accusation from correspondents is that the movement is not transparent – not only about the influence of anthroposophy and its in principle opposition to SATs, but also about what takes place in the classroom. Officials are in receipt of Steiner teacher training materials that imply a highly secretive approach to what takes place in class, stating teachers should “…never allow anyone access to lesson notes or records” and “anything indicating what the class may have learnt, or covered in Morning Lesson should be ‘lost’ before you leave the school.”
  • On Ofsted, at the time the document was written there was one state-funded Steiner school, the Steiner Academy Hereford, and it was due to have its first inspection. However, officials note that ‘the current inspection framework is antithetical to the Steiner ethos/pedagogical approach’ in terms of ‘Literacy in Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and Key Stage 1 (KS1)’, where Ofsted required ‘more formal learning’; ‘KS2 tests’, as ‘Last year, the Academy pupils did not sit the tests (the Academy provided the exam papers and rooms for pupils to sit the exams but parents chose not to allow their pupils to sit the tests)’; and ‘Teaching and learning’, where it is noted that the schools consider that ‘any process which judges learning as the immediate outcome from teaching in a lesson is inappropriate. This is in clear opposition to the Section 5 inspection framework.’As a result, ‘Officials have been meeting with Ofsted to try and resolve these issues as the Academy is due a Section 5 inspection next year, (before the framework is changed from September 2011). It is likely to be judged inadequate as its provision does not meet the framework requirements… We are continuing to work with Ofsted on agreeing a way forward.’ But in the event, the school was found to be satisfactory across the board. In a subsequent 2013 inspection it was found good across the board. The difference between the expected and actual result is unexplained.

Due to these concerns, in the first year of the Free Schools programme, officials recommended writing to all Steiner Free School proposers ‘confirming that we would need to resolve’ the issues around Ofsted specifically before any application could be accepted. However, beyond that, ‘it is important to state that when deciding whether to approve a Free School proposal, the Secretary of State will judge each case on its merits. Taking the same approach with Steiner would mean that we do not use the material provided by the parents about specific cases in particular schools as the basis for our approach to all Steiner schools. We should discuss any concerns with the Steiner Fellowship and give them an opportunity to address them.’ The rest of the response consequently focuses on the ‘lines to take’ ‘in the event that Ministers do approve Steiner Free School proposals’.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘Some of the issues that officials identified in 2010 with respect to independent Steiner schools are extremely serious and systemic. They include accusations of racism and a third being subject to serious complaints of staff bullying of pupils. Coupled with the issues we have seen with the Steiner Academy Hereford teaching pseudoscience, providing homeopathy for pupils and opting out of offering vaccinations, we do not think that Steiner schools should be state-funded. We urge the Government to review this decision.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Richy Thompson, Education Campaigns Officer, at richy@humanism.org.uk or on 020 7324 3072.

Read the DfE’s two briefings: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FOI-EA20140017-Accessible.pdf – note that only some of the first briefing has been released as most of it was not related to Steiner schools.

Read the BHA’s statement upon winning the Information Tribunal case: https://humanism.org.uk/2014/06/25/bha-victory-information-tribunal-government-ordered-disclose-steiner-school-documents/

Read the Information Tribunal’s decision: http://www.informationtribunal.gov.uk/DBFiles/Decision/i1318/Department%20for%20Education%20EA.2014.0017%20(25.06.14).pdf

Currently there are three state funded Steiner schools, with a fourth on the way. The first, Steiner Academy Hereford, is a sponsored Academy which opened in 2008. The second, Steiner Academy Frome, is the first Steiner Free School and opened in 2012. Steiner Academy Exeter opened in 2013, with Steiner Academy Bristol due to open in 2014. About half a dozen groups are applying to open Steiner Free Schools from 2015.

Read the BHA’s detailed briefing on Steiner schools: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/BHA-BRIEFING-concerns-about-the-state-funding-of-Steiner-schools.pdf

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.

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