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Free Schools(2)

Welcome to the second of a series of posts looking at Steiner Free School applications and the reasons as to why they shouldn’t and so far haven’t been successful.

Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) is the body coordinating Steiner education here in UK. Its Autumn 2010 newsletter stated most of its 30 or so member schools expressed an interest in becoming Free Schools. The following  spring SWSF newsletter doesn’t mention Free Schools at all but on 5th March 2011 a News Network Anthroposophy (NNA) headline announced ‘Rudolf Steiner schools in England fail to win government funding’.

Although SWSF provided NNA with the info re the Free Schools story the SWSF website itself hasn’t mentioned the news anywhere on its website or even linked to the NNA piece about the Free Schools news.  It’s published ‘news’ items in April, just not the bad news, or explanatory news as to why their member schools failed en masse in the latest round of applications.

NNA, a news outlet for the global Anthroposophy movement (HQ website here), gave three reasons for the failed Steiner applications – lack of suitable premises, school roll already full (government doesn’t want to fund Free Schools unless it creates extra pupil places), lack of proof of sufficient demand. I’ll be adding other reasons as to why Steiner schools cannot be become Free Schools in forthcoming posts but for now let’s stick to one simple one that even Tory and other proponents of Free Schools will appreciate, a financial reason.

Several Steiner schools were financially hamstrung by the collapse of their anthroposophic flavoured Mercury Provident Pension Scheme (MPPS), a scheme established by the SWSF. The collapse of the scheme left the Steiner schools participating in it (SWSF included) to shoulder collectively the estimated deficit of the pension scheme. As an example of the scale of the financial problem some schools face, the now closed Canterbury Steiner School’s 2008 accounts state its estimated share of the debt to the pension scheme to be £173,000 and in the same accounting year Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School’s share of the debt was reported to be over £400,000. Worse still, in accounting year 2009 Elmfield notes that a recent interim report and review of the deficit by the actuaries indicates the deficit is expected to at least double. As if that isn’t bad enough, if one of the participants within the failed scheme fails (is wound up or dissolved) the toxic ‘mercury debt’ of the failed school doesn’t disappear, it becomes the shared responsibility of the remaining original participants. (Edit March 2019: the total debt of the pension scheme is now officially £20 million.)

On its website offering guidance to Free school applicants the New schools Network says: (see section G of the guidance):

“All applications, including those with an innovative or new approach,must demonstrate that the school will be financially viable.”

Basic financial prudence would or should see DfE dismiss MPPS Steiner Free School applications out of hand on the grounds that such schools fail this most basic of financial checks.. There are too many financial unknowns at play here for the DfE to be able to consider free School applications from Steiners participating within the MPPS. Were it to approve such applications DfE would begin funding schools already exposed to grave financial risk at a time when the scale of the risk is still unknown yet anticipated to worsen over time. (Edit March 2019: The debt has tripled since we first reported on it here, now stands at £20 million.) Furthermore, Elmfield Steiner’s 2008 annual accounts state “the MPPS  is shared with 16 other employers, largely Waldorf schools and anthroposophical initiatives.” Three of the 16 participants aren’t schools: SWSF which established the MPPS scheme, Garden Organic (a charity registered as a company) and Weleda(UK) Limited which is a business albeit with a stated Anthroposophic ethos. I’m not sure that the DfE wants to be seen to be indirectly financially supportive of a heavily biodynamic influenced gardening supplier or a cosmetics and Anthroposophic medicines manufacturer and supplier.

What of the Steiner schools not involved in the MPPS? Well, we have to look to other reasons as to why they should not become state funded Free Schools and I’ll be presenting those reasons in further, chunky, bite sized posts in this series about Steiner Free School applications.

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