Learning To Live With One Another
PUBLISHED: 11:04 28 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:33 20 February 2013
Hilary Engel talks to Trevor Mepham about his new appointment as principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, and about what Steiner education has to offer.
Trevor Mepham's new job will require immense powers of diplomacy, which he probably possesses. He has just been appointed principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, formerly the Hereford Waldorf School, which in all its 25 years has never had a principal. Like all the other 30 Steiner schools in the UK it used to be run by a Council made up of parents, teachers and administrators: and Trevor admits it is "a challenge" moving into this new role.
I have come to talk to him in the school's rambling premises at Much Dewchurch, where it occupies the site of the former primary school and various portakabins as well as a quaint old half-timbered farmhouse next door. Trevor has recently arrived from Devon, where he lived for 22 years on the edge of Dartmoor.
As a graduate in international politics: he was about to launch into a career with the Civil Service when he discovered Steiner education, and changed tack. After training, he taught in a Steiner school in Devon, then became a classroom advisor to Steiner schools in the UK and abroad, then for 12 years taught on a BA programme in Steiner education at the University of Plymouth.
He was also a member of the Executive Group of the national Steiner schools movement which for the past 10 years has been negotiating with the government to set up a Steiner Academy. From the time when Tony Blair was in opposition, he and his colleagues had offered to help the Steiner schools, as part of their commitment to 'choice and diversity' in education.
So what is the essence of Steiner education? What makes it different from state schooling? Trevor admits this is not an easy question to answer. "It isn't a simple blueprint, because a Steiner school grows from its roots and local context. Each school is founded on the basis of certain shared principles. Principles are like seeds; they need to grow from their own soil and conditions. This means that Steiner schools the world over are alike and also different in every place that you find them - just the opposite of MacDonalds.
"We try not to split things up into pieces artificially. Our teaching incorporates the notion that every human being has a character, a unique identity, with potential, and obstacles to overcome, and pupils can't be standardised or dealt with in a uniform way. We work actively with the notion that every human being has a spiritual aspect, and a soul, as well as a body. We try to meet the children as individuals, and help them make their way according to their strengths and distinctive attributes.
"Steiner education also focuses on the way in which people relate to each other. This is more and more important in modern life. We believe there are social and emotional aspects of education which need to accompany the more technical, functional ones. It's essential that we are able to consider, appreciate and, at times, tolerate each other, whether in a family, in a community, or across borders.
"Any form of education should have these ideals in mind - otherwise it is merely training, just the acquisition of skills without a meaningful context, and the human being gets sidelined in favour of technical know-how.
"We try to foster lifelong learning, meaning the disposition, the ability, to continue learning throughout one's life; this is essential to health and well-being."
Undoubtedly there are many misconceptions among outsiders about Steiner education; but one aspect which is widely known is that the children do not start reading until they are seven years old. I ask Trevor to explain the reasons for this: is it simply based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian scholar who founded the educational movement after the First World War?
"Steiner didn't want anyone to be bound by what he said," Trevor assures me. "He was a researcher working in many fields - agriculture, the arts, medicine, architecture , as well as education. He offered 'indications', not instructions, based on spiritual insight, coupled with a rigorous method of observation and reflection. He developed ideas that had come from Rousseau and Froebel, and were later shared, in part, by Piaget and Montessori.
"But Steiner did see childhood as composed of three different developmental phases: infancy, then the heart of childhood, then puberty and adolescence. They're not rigid divisions, and they don't apply in the same way to all children."
"In Steiner education we see 'reading' as just one aspect of literacy. Reading is a skill, but it is also a disposition: being literate means more than just being able to read in a mechanical or technical sense. We hope that our pupils will have an appetite for reading when they are 70 as well as seven. If you teach a three-year-old to read you are putting something in, of course, but you are also taking something away, or rather, filling the space. . This is a controversial idea, although it is the case that when you begin to read, your whole consciousness changes. A new and important quality dawns, while another, less obvious quality dims"
"We want our young children to be able to climb trees, and swim, and listen, and play and sing, get on with other people and certainly dream a little. We are very committed to literacy for the long term, and to emotional literacy, which is, arguably, more valuable than being a multi-millionaire."
Steiner schools begin teaching foreign languages from the age of seven. In addition to the bread and butter subjects - maths, English and science - they also put particular emphasis on art, music and drama, on the myths and philosophies of other cultures, and on practical handwork and land-crafts. The specialism of the Steiner Academy will be the natural environment.
Until now all of the British Steiner schools have been self-funded, though in many parts of Europe - Scandinavia, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands - as well as in Russia, Israel, Australia and New Zealand, they have been state-funded for many years. (There are over 1000 Steiner schools worldwide.) The Blair government was committed to funding one Steiner academy, in order to be able to assess its effectiveness. It proved impossible to find a suitable site in a city, where when a school becomes vacant it tends to be snapped up by developers. And so eventually the choice fell on the little school in Much Dewchurch.
As Trevor knows, the new Academy is going to be the focus of considerable attention. With all its funding coming directly from central government, he and the school are answerable directly to the Secretary of State. The school will continue to have Ofsted inspections, but now as a publicly-funded school. Already during the summer holidays there was an inspection of 'policies, procedures and premises'; and only after this was successfully completed could the opening date for the Academy be set.
But already the school is over-subscribed, with waiting lists extending several years ahead. "Some people ring up to apply for places when their children have only just been born," says Trevor. "But some of our children now are second generation - their parents came here too."
The local community will also be keeping a close eye on the Academy. Throughout its 25-year life the school has encountered opposition to its development plans; and although money was available for a complete re-build the planning application submitted this year was rejected. Instead there are going to be additions to the existing buildings and a refurbishment of the entire site.
There are those who are concerned that the Steiner Academy will drain resources and more importantly children from nearby state schools. "None of our funding comes from the local authority," says Trevor, so the first worry is unfounded.
And although the school is going to grow, it is only a modest increase. "The new classrooms are designed for a maximum of 26 children," says Trevor, "and we have ten classes, up to the age of 16. Including the three kindergartens there will be no more than about 320 children altogether - an increase of just 18%.
"Quite a few families have moved here specifically in order to send their children to the school, bringing their skills, their businesses and their families to the area. The school is a source of attraction, which is bringing growth and diversity to the local economy."
So what difference is it going to make to the school now that it is an Academy?
"The funding will enable us to upgrade our existing buildings and add new ones," says Trevor. "The school has never had its own hall - all of our festivals have taken place in the church next door, and the church has given us unstinting support, for which we are extremely grateful. Now we will have our own hall, and a music room, a movement room, three new classrooms,rooms for learning support, a new toilet block, and a new reception area. We'll be able to make our classrooms more spacious, and more beautiful."
One particular difference - assuming that the government does not change its existing policy in the meantime - is that the school has agreed to administer National Curriculum Tests in Key Stages 2 and 3. Previously the school has used internal, classroom-based forms of assessment, carried out by the teachers. Trevor admits that the SATS will call for "an interesting balancing act" between the requirements and expectations of the government, staff, children and parents. "It's an issue to be taken very seriously: the tests will need to be carefully discussed with the parents and children, who are studying a completely different curriculum from the one the tests are designed for. It's important that the Academy responds to the various aspects of this issue with respect and in a positive spirit."
Despite the diplomatic minefield that may lie ahead, Trevor seems to be facing the future in his new role with confidence and total commitment.
"This is and will be a small, local school set in a delightful part of the country. We are also part of a European family of 650 schools and an international network of 1000 schools. We find ourselves living in uncertain and complex times, where opportunities and constraints often vie with each other. I think Steiner education has a contribution to make to the wider educational life of this country. How we live and learn together, with our differences, rather than in spite of them, is a key challenge for our times and a task that is fundamentally an educational one."
Main photography by Shaun Thompson