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A rattled SWSF sends FoI requests to Ofsted & DfE, urges followers to modernise

It’s ten years ago now since the blog’s first post appeared. Titled ‘SWSF PR Disaster, Emergency Aid Sought From Europe’ the post publicised the efforts being made by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) in countering what it perceived to be “many attacks being made on Steiner Waldorf education in Internet forums and blogs”. These ‘attacks’ (aka opinions, criticisms, critiques etc) came at a time when SWSF’s star was well and truly on the rise. Its long term lobbying of Blair’s government had recently paid off with the advent of the first UK state funded Steiner school, the Steiner Academy Hereford.

Then, with a change of government and education policy on the horizon, SWSF organised its now notorious ‘special seminar’, an event to which it invited Tory bigwigs to explain the Free Schools policy to Steiner educators. As the record of the seminar makes clear, so long as the public did not associate government with Steiner controversy then, when in power, the Tories  would be happy endorsing state funding of Steiner education. In the years following commencement of SWSF’s PR campaign, a further three schools would join Hereford to become state funded. Clearly, SWSF’s PR was good enough to work where it mattered most – in the court of public opinion – else the Tories wouldn’t have state funded more Steiners.

From reactive and clumsy beginnings, SWSF’s PR efforts soon became more like the proactive and reactive operation we see today. Changes in SWSF PR strategy began soon after the special seminar had taken place and it seems highly likely that the Tory guidance and the offers of lessons in spin (made at the seminar) were taken up by SWSF. For example, after the seminar a rapid increase in tokenism on SWSF and member school websites was evident whereas, before the seminar, non-white faces on publicity materials were seldom seen. Also, if there were to be an ‘attack’ (i.e. a criticism or critique) in mainstream media then a few responses from some well-placed supporters or an answering article by a tame journalist would soon follow.

From the Blair days onward SWSF’s continued lobbying successfully persuaded powers-that-be to make exceptions and exemptions for Steiner schools. The Steiner curriculum could be followed, schools would no longer be subject to Ofsted inspections direct, for example. In place of Ofsted, Steiners would be inspected by the School Inspection Service (SIS), an agency (now closed) supervised by Ofsted but having its own inspectors knowledgeable in the workings and pedagogy of Steiner schools. Oftentimes these inspectors had been active within the schools themselves or elsewhere within the Anthroposophy movement, in other words they would near certainly be Anthroposophists and certainly would be Steiner sympathetic. Another notable lobbying achievement came when, SWSF successfully orchestrated a push to have its kindergartens exempted from regulatory requirements relating to ‘the formal introduction of Literacy, Numeracy as well as Technology and in some cases the Assessment regulations’.

In tandem with these successes, the education wing of the UK Anthroposophy movement had been quietly but steadily setting up an Ofqual recognised and regulated qualifications and certification system, set up by the Anthroposophically motivated Crossfields Institute. Crossfields also designs its own courses and participates with other European Anthroposophically motivated providers in organising post-grad level Higher Education courses. Also in Europe, a project to “develop a valid alternative high school Diploma” has recently been completed and the results are being assessed. This project was Erasmus/EU funded to the tune of €428,000 (granted to SWSF) and was brought to fruition by SWSF and other Steiner ed associations.

Beyond Europe one (new to me) example of certification which is seeing increasing uptake in SWSF schools is the New Zealand Certificate of Steiner Education (NZCSE). Developed in New Zealand, the NZCSE is claimed to be “on a par with A Levels or the International Baccalaureate”. From what I can work out, this qualification has no exams to pass and student work is monitored and graded by Steiner teachers. Quality and assurance of NZCSE certification is looked after by, take a guess,  Anthroposophist external auditors.

All in all, what we have ended up with is an educational world of woo running parallel to mainstream. In the UK this educational world of woo is state endorsed, directly state funded and indirectly state subsidised via charitable status tax breaks.

So, until very recently everything in the Steiner garden was rosy. Steiner schools would be inspected by Steiner sympathisers/ex-practitioners, their schools would not be teaching kids to read and write until they were around 7 years old as per Steiner pedagogy, people could study and be certified in boutique courses designed by Anthroposophist supporters, school pupils have their own exam-free version of A-levels and most importantly – the SWSF wasn’t embarrassing the government.

Then, it all went horribly wrong for the SWSF.

Now, a decade after the blog’s first post, SWSF and its schools are in the middle of another PR disaster. This time the publicity problems are real rather than overblown, are of a completely different order and are entirely of the UK Steiner education movement’s own making. Following safety concerns at one school a raft of Ofsted inspections has since revealed appalling safety conditions, behavior and attitudes at many other Steiner schools. Some schools have had to close already, many more must rapidly improve or else they too will be closed. SIS – the agency which had been inspecting Steiners – was suddenly closed after Ofsted had found it lacked rigour. Common problems amongst the Steiner schools have been that they are unsafe places for children and are dysfunctional or have very poor leadership. Learning outcomes, poor quality teacher and teacher/staff shortages have also been noted, shoddy treatment of special needs pupils noted too, including mismanagement of SEND budgets.

SWSF is the membership body for Steiner schools in UK & Ireland. It represents, promotes and supports its member schools and protects the Steiner/Waldorf ‘brand’. Government recognises SWSF as representing Steiner schools. SWSF’s website outlines some of the practical support it provides, more detail is given here. Surely SWSF must bear some responsibility for the mess its schools find themselves in? Even if they aren’t directly responsible, if ever there was a time for SWSF to step up and take some responsibility for its members – show some solidarity with them, maybe take a hit on their behalf by making an apology – then this is it.

Well, on 31st January 2019 SWSF made a statement about the schools crisis. Regarding responsibility, the statement says:

“Steiner Waldorf schools across the UK and Ireland are run independently from SWSF, each with their own governing body. SWSF instils a shared responsibility across its network of 31 Steiner Waldorf schools and 14 independent early years’ settings.”

Considering the import of the matter at hand, surely SWSF would have the sense to issue a clearly worded statement. Yes, the first sentence above makes sense but the second? Sorry, try as I might I cannot unravel what SWSF is saying there.

Responsibility is touched on elsewhere in the statement:

“…Our role is to provide guidance to schools in order for them to ensure all standards are in-line with the requirements set out by the Department for Education (DfE)…We have appointed a team of four quality care advisers to complete our own independent compliance checks so that all schools continue to uphold DfE regulations and requirements.”

Regarding responsibility, what SWSF appears to me to be telling us is that other than instilling collective responsibility into its community of schools (no, I still don’t comprehend that) SWSF accepts no responsibility for the failings of its schools. This is because SWSF has only ever offered guidance to them and what schools do with the guidance is up to them. In the future SWSF will check up on schools to make sure they’ve been following guidance given – the ghost of SIS will haunt SWSF’s schools.

Elsewhere in its statement SWSF claims to have been engaging proactively with Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, and with the Department for Education (DfE).

“SWSF proactively sought and agreed to meetings with both DfE officials and Ofsted prior to Ms Spielman’s findings and will continue to make the vital changes required.”

Given that SWSF was really on the ball and engaging with Ofsted and DfE it’s distinctly odd that – a month after the statement was published – SWSF was sending in Freedom of Information requests to both Ofsted and the DfE requesting clarification of what Ofsted and DfE had been talking about in the run up to ‘Ms Spielman’s findings’. SWSF was clearly sidelined, isolated whilst Ofsted and DfE danced around them. Here’s the DfE request, dated 25th February, 2019 (scroll to the top to see the start of this):

“Dear Department for Education,

I am writing to request, under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, email or other exchanges between the relevant ministers, the Department & Ofsted during the autumn term 2018 concerned with Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship member schools & the replacement by Ofsted of School Inspection Service for inspection of SWSF independent schools during that period. The period in question includes information about, leading to, or arising as a result of, inspection by Ofsted of five Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship member schools, The Iona School, Greenwich Steiner School, Michael House Steiner School, London Steiner School (also known as the Waldorf School of South West London) & Moorlands Waldorf Initiative.

Thank you for your assistance.

Yours faithfully,
Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship”

The initial Ofsted FoI request of February 2019 had to be reworked and amended a few times before Ofsted could reply to it but the thrust of it is definitely covered in the version below, it went in to Ofsted on 21st March 2019. SWSF writes to Ofsted:

“Thank you for your reply & request for a more focussed application for information.

Please provide copies of briefing material made available to Ofsted inspectors preparatory to inspection of Greenwich Steiner School, the Iona Steiner School & Beechtree Steiner Initiative along with material from documents relevant to these inspections prior to publication of the reports.
Yours sincerely,

Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship”

On 26th March 2019 SWSF sent in a further tweak which additionally asked for “records of emails or other written exchanges within Ofsted discussing the outcome/grading of these schools, or commenting on the (as yet unpublished) reports.” Both of SWSF’s FoI requests had been signed off by 24th May, 2019.

Neither of the FoI responses contain anything much of interest. Besides, that isn’t the point here. What is significant is that SWSF – for a decade the darling of DfE – has had to resort to FoI requests to obtain information it might ordinarily have been privy to via formal or informal channels. SWSF has clearly been sidelined and somewhat isolated whilst DfE and Ofsted worked around them.

It is interesting, then, to see what SWSF makes of the crisis and how it came about. For that we can turn to an article about the schools crisis published on 21st June in News Network Anthroposophy (NNA) – Anthroposophy’s own newspaper. Not that this is an article written by SWSF, the only mention of SWSF is in a strapline about the author:

“Until her recent retirement, Sylvie Sklan was the lead on all matters related to Steiner academies for the UK Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF).”

A name familiar to many of us, Sylvie Sklan was a long term employee and former executive of SWSF during which time she was largely responsible for a sustained lobbying campaign for the state funding of Steiners. Her efforts bore fruit in the form of four state funded Steiner Academies. Although she retired from SWSF in early 2017 she remains a governor of the Hereford academy, the first ever and sole surviving state funded Steiner school in UK.

When a person of such prestige and rank within Anthroposophy writes in NNA you can be fairly confident that whatever the content is it will be in line with the general feelings of the movement’s top brass. Writing as an ex-SWSF executive and currently a governor of an Academy adjudged ‘Good’ by Ofsted during the recent Ofsted ‘blitz’, Ms Sklan has an authorative and recognised voice within the British Steiner education community – we can take it that Ms Sklan is writing from SWSF’s perspective if not writing on their behalf.

Sadly, the first thing to make clear about Sylvie Sklan’s NNA article is that it provides an incorrect and misleading version of the events leading up to the schools crisis. The article is effectively re-writing history and we’ll see how and maybe why in another post. The article is a surprisingly frank and forthright account in many ways, it does accept that things went badly wrong in the SWSF schools. For any schools expecting solidarity and support from the former SWSF executive, there was little of comfort in the article – it was basically a sink or swim message.

“…schools urgently need to demonstrate that they do have the capacity to turn themselves around. The hope is they will each in their own way take on this challenge and transform it into an opportunity to embrace change and to ensure that tradition doesn’t get in the way of a more outward facing attitude that is needed now.

The jury is out with regard to how many of the independent schools will respond effectively and quickly. It requires positivity and energy to embrace this challenge. But if they don’t, then, as the secretary of state says in his letter, the government will take enforcement action against all inadequate Steiner schools that fail to improve rapidly.”

Ms Sklan’s exhorting schools ‘to ensure that tradition doesn’t get in the way of a more outward facing attitude that is needed now’ is interesting. Sylvie Sklan’s choice of words and turn of phrase addresses the long term debate and deep divide between Steiner education traditionalists on the one hand and modernisers on the other.

Prior to the advent of the Free Schools policy Sylvie Sklan seemed to me to be on a never ending speaking tour of SWSF’s community of schools, drumming up support for state funding. The schools were hesitant because it was felt state funding would necessitate a dilution of Steiner principles if their schools were to operate within the mainstream. Most were won over but some spurned state funding and still do. Tensions between traditionalists and modernisers remain to this day.

The NNA article is artfully written, the former lobbyist Ms Sklan hasn’t lost any of her touch as a communicator. By comparison, SWSF’s January statement doesn’t look good – there are extraneous speech marks in it, for example – and it’s baffling in parts. It is a throwback to the clumsy, clunky PR and counter-criticism efforts of a decade ago.

Now, ten years after its counter-criticism foray, SWSF is again hiring a PR person but this time around the person handling the PR will also perform a multitude of other roles. In fact the new worker will be leading the organisation itself – by the time you read this the SWSF should have a new boss. The new Executive will not only be the public face of SWSF, he or she will line manage members of the Executive Group of which there are four at present.

The covering letter accompanying the job advert is revealing:

“Following a number of concerns in some Steiner Schools the inspection body has been disbanded and one could say the cushioning that Steiner schools in England have experienced so far has been taken away. Schools and the movement as a whole have to face changed demands of how to communicate with the non-Steiner world, a world of outcomes and external scrutiny where one has to explain what one does, how and most importantly why in a language that the non-Steiner world can clearly understand.”

The disbanded inspection body is, of course, SIS – the outfit that got the chop because it wasn’t inspecting Steiner schools properly.

When Ofsted resumed inspecting Steiner schools, one of the recurring problems it reported on involved leadership issues within the schools. In place of a head teacher, many Steiner schools are run along collective/collegiate lines, a method prescribed by Rudolf Steiner in his education lectures and texts and the method used by SWSF’s Exec group in its current format.

In keeping with the call for modernisation in the NNA article, SWSF’s covering letter also points to the need for SWSF and the schools to adapt to change, to modernise. With its newly formed leadership role, SWSF is setting an example to its schools by restructuring its own lines of communication and leadership. This move away from Steiner orthodoxy is in keeping with a part of the NNA article where Sylvie Sklan points to what is happening to the failed state schools. Those schools are being taken on by the Avanti School Trust, a Hindu faith oriented academy chain where, writes Sklan:

“Under the Trust, these three Steiner academies would be likely to become schools “inspired by Waldorf principles”.

We shall see. Meanwhile traditionalists appear to be fighting their corner. According to an ‘exclusive’ in the Independent on 3rd July this year, leading a charge against Ofsted is Rowan Williams who has reportedly co-signed a letter (try the Roger Rawlings site if you don’t have an Indie account) to Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman calling for reinstatement of the SIS agency.

So, there’s a lot going on in the Steiner education parallel world of woo. The SWSF in its covering letter for the job vacancy highlights their need to be able to explain what they do, how they do it and most importantly why they do it “in a language that the non-Steiner world can clearly understand.”

It looks certain to me that a modernising SWSF will prevail leaving the traditionalists to become a niche within a niche within the education sector. The SWSF’s new boss will have the unenviable task of clearly communicating the difference between an authentic, traditional Steiner school and multiple variable versions of Steiner-lite. The much harder task will be to regain the confidence and ear of government.

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