A while ago now there appeared in the Anthroposophy movement’s own newspaper a lengthy article which sought to summarise the events of the Steiner schools crisis. Written by Sylvie Sklan – former boss of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) – the piece is in many ways typical of SWSF statements generally in that it is somewhat partial, is misleading and contains at least one factual error. Credit where credit’s due though – Ms Sklan’s article does accept there are problems in SWSF schools which need sorting out quickly if the schools are to remain open. Even so, the article does need addressing if only to correct and balance it and so I felt it might be helpful to assemble a timeframe of the events behind the SWSF Steiner schools crisis. To begin with here’s Sylvie Sklan’s revisionist summation of very recent history. Here you go:
This whole episode began in November 2018 with an Ofsted inspection of the Steiner Academy Exeter. Academies are publicly funded independent schools which can follow their own curriculum. Inspectors were alarmed by what they found and this resulted in the school being closed for a few days so that some of the very concerning safeguarding issues could be addressed straight away. A school closure after an inspection – even a temporary closure – inevitably draws media attention and the academy in Exeter was no exception…There was an explosion of media interest. This led to the local member of parliament writing to the secretary of state for education, Damien Hinds, to request that other “similar” schools were inspected. It didn’t take long for inspectors to turn up unannounced at the three other Steiner academies, as well as at five independent Steiner schools.
So, according to Ms Sklan the Steiner schools crisis begins in November 2018 at Exeter when safeguarding issues were discovered by Ofsted at an inspection of the Steiner Academy there. The media picked up the story, the local MP then wrote to DfE requesting that other similar schools be inspected, Ofsted wades in and finds several ‘inadequate’ Steiner schools, end of history story and the article then moves on to other, related, matters.
There is very little in the way of in-depth analysis as to the causes of the crisis in Ms Sklan’s article, merely a few summaries of speculative explanatory opinions drawn from the Steiner community. One such opinion is a conspiracy theory which sees Ofsted’s inspections as the outcome of the dark hand of an anti-Waldorf lobby, a witch-hunt of some kind. However, back in the real world, major contributors to the crisis can be seen to have been the Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley (RSSKL) affair, the weak and/or improper inspections conducted by the School Inspection Service (SIS) and one of SWSF’s own publications – the Steiner Waldorf Class Teachers Handbook – which caused a storm because its content raised grooming concerns. All of this stuff happened prior to the events at Steiner Academy Exeter and all of it is self-inflicted damage, internal to the Steiner community, but it is all conveniently ignored or glossed over by Ms Sklan. We’ll return to the causes of the failure of so many of the Steiner schools a little later but it will help firstly to have a timeline of the events leading up to the Steiner schools crisis.
Below you’ll find what I hope is an accurate and more comprehensive record of events than is given in the NNA article. Dates of Ofsteds are for the date the inspection took place, not the publication date which would usually be a week to ten days after the inspection itself. The links provided take you to the source of the news/info about the event or to further info about it. Unfortunately it isn’t possible to link to SIS reports as they are no longer available at the SIS website. I haven’t provided direct links to many individual Ofsted reports but you can check Ofsteds online for yourself if you want to check them (make sure to search for inactive as well as active schools else you’ll miss the newly defunct Steiner schools). As an aid to readers a brief explanatory note accompanies each event in the timeline.
8 Mar 2016: SIS undertakes emergency inspection at RSSKL ‘following concerns raised about pupils’ safety and the management of the school.’ Required standards are found to be unmet.
29 & 30 June 2016: SIS performs a follow up Monitoring inspection of RSSKL. Finds that all required standards are now met. On publication of the report a parent complained to DfE. In place of SIS, DfE now sends in Ofsted to inspect RSSKL.
2 Nov 2016: Ofsted inspects RSSKL for the first time since 2009. Ofsted finds serious safeguarding failings and several required standards unmet.
13 to 16 Dec 2016: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. Adjudged an Inadequate school due to safety & leadership issues, several required standards unmet.
January 2017: Following a disciplinary hearing, RSSKL fires Denis McCarthy, a teacher at the school for over 30 years, for gross misconduct relating to child safeguarding and other issues. Parents were not made aware of this. Although dismissed, McCarthy continued to meet up with a group of RSSKL children outside of school for several months.
9 Mar 2017: DfE orders RSSKL to cease admitting new pupils. The school lodged an appeal against the decision.
23 May 2017: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. Several required standards not met at the previous inspection remained unmet.
26 Jul 2017: Government moves to remove RSSKL from the Register of Independent Schools, effectively closing it. RSSKL lodges an additional appeal against this move allowing the school to remain open until appeal is heard. Hires top flight legal advisors at the Mishcon de Reya firm.
Mid-Aug 2017: RSSKL trustees issue a public statement re Denis McCarthy and apologises for the school’s past failings.
3 Sep 2017: Daily Mail reports government’s intent to deregister RSSKL citing ‘serious fears of child safety’ there.
21 & 22 Nov 2017: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. Improvement had been made but some required standards remain unmet.
27 Feb 2018: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. Some regression to previous poor standards.
10 May 2018: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. An excoriating report follows. Not only is the school still failing, Ofsted notes that RSSKL is telling lies to parents and to media and even to job applicants as to the failings of the school.
16 Jun 2018: At an Extraordinary General Meeting RSSKL decides to close the main school at the end of the academic year in July 2018. It negotiates a deal with DfE such that its kindergarten/Early Years provision can continue until March 2019.
24 June 2018: Daily Telegraph announces RSSKL closure again :‘Rotten to the core’ flagship Steiner school to close…’concerned parents were sent gagging letter’
30 June 2018: Daily Mail headlines ‘Steiner school handbook raises grooming concerns’. The book is core reading for trainee Steiner teachers.
11 July 2018: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. It met the regulatory requirements that were checked (NB not all requirements were checked at this inspection).
24 Jul 2018: The dangers at Steiner Academy Exeter are first publicly flagged up when Devon Live reported “Six-year-old boys wander out of Exeter school – and no one noticed they were gone”.
Sep 2018: Sometime in September SIS directors decide to cease inspecting schools, deferring implementation of decision until 01 Jan 2019.
26 Sep 2018: The DfE’s regional schools commissioner sends a ‘Minded to terminate’ letter to Steiner Academy Exeter’s trustees. The commissioner had been informed of “significant concerns about safeguarding, governance, and provision for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)”
9 & 10 Oct 2018: Acting on complaints received, an Ofsted inspection without notice of Exeter Steiner Academy was made on 9th and 10th October 2018.
12 OCT 2018: Devon Live reported “Exeter’s Steiner Academy in shock closure following Ofsted inspection”
17 OCT 2018: Devon Live reported: “MP backs temporary closure of Exeter’s struggling Steiner school” and quotes the MP as saying “Given the recent failure of other free schools in Devon I will also be asking the Government what it is doing to reassure parents and children that other similar schools are safe, sustainable and able to provide a quality education to our children.”
20 Oct 2018: Daily Telegraph reported “Ministers urged to order fresh inspections of all Steiner schools amid fresh child safety fears.” Report also mentions concerns about SIS saying that as safeguarding fears mounted, Ofsted was called in to take over.
6 Nov 2018: Ofsted inspects RSSKL. Adjudged inadequate due to safety, leadership and other failings.
6 Nov 2018: Amanda Spielman bluntly reports to DfE Minister Damien Hinds that for the 3rd year running “Ofsted does not have sufficient evidence to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State as to SIS’s suitability for continued approval as an independent inspectorate… this has been due to the limited monitoring activity commissioned by DfE.” Apparently DfE reduced commissions as a direct result of ‘austerity’ budget cuts.
15 Nov 2018: Damian Hinds writes to Ofsted “I would like to commission Ofsted to conduct a series of inspections of some of the Steiner independent schools, rather than the School Inspection Service (SIS), and for this to go alongside increased monitoring by Ofsted of the SIS inspections.” The original letter is now hard to find online, a summary of it is in TES
31 Jan 2019: Ofsted’s chief, Amanda Spielman reports back to DfE summary results of the initial batch of inspections of Steiners: “…the findings are deeply concerning,” wrote Spielman and added “I urge you to consider and further investigate why so many of the Steiner schools inspected are neither protecting children adequately nor giving them a good standard of education.”
Early February 2019: Denis McCarthy’s professional misconduct hearing begins. An early report on it considers it to be taking place amidst a “deepening crisis for Steiner Schools”.
Feb 2019 onwards: Ofsted continues its inspections of English Steiners.
4 March 2019: After his professional misconduct hearing, former RSSKL teacher Denis McCarthy is banned from teaching.
29 Mar 2019: As agreed with DfE, RSSKL’s registration as a school ceases at this point and its last teaching concern as a school, the kindergarten there, is closed.
14 May 2019: Ofsted makes a monitoring inspection of Exeter Steiner Academy. “Leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures” said Ofsted and recommended no newly qualified teachers be appointed before the next monitoring inspection. The school folded and was absorbed into the Avanti chain of academies where it no longer teaches to a Steiner pedagogy.
21 Jun 2019: Former SWSF boss Sylvie Sklan’s revisionist article re the Steiner schools crisis appears in NNA, the Anthroposophy movement’s in-house newspaper.
25 Jun 2019: An Open Letter is sent to Amanda Spielman and issued as a Press Release. The letter rails against Ofsted’s ‘bullying’ inspection regime generally and its inspections of Steiner schools in particular. Signatories include a host of Steiner ed luminaries and supporters including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Ofsted’s reported response was that it had a duty to report on schools as it finds.
22 Jul 2019: Ofsted completes its inspections of English Steiners and Amanda Spielman sends a summary of results in to Damian Hinds at DfE. Half of the 26 schools were rated Inadequate i.e. they failed their inspection. A further 7 schools were rated as ‘requires improvement’, the least worst rating on the Ofsted scale. Ms Spielman’s report highlights concerns about ineffective safeguarding practices, poor leadership, poor provision for special needs pupils and the quality of education in Steiner schools education generally, a deeply disturbing summation of the perilous state of Steiner schools generally.
With Ofsted’s final report of July 2019 we reach the nadir of the Steiner schools crisis and the end of this time line.
We can see in the timeline a succession of extremely worrying news stories about the schools and Steiner education generally. Some of these stories dragged on, the RSSKL affair for example, and some overlapped or were separated by a matter of weeks. They were widely reported on, the Daily Telegraph in particular taking a keen interest in the Steiner school stories. Whatever spin Ms Sklan and the Steiner cult might want to put on it now, the Steiner schools crisis did not have a single point of origin at Exeter, it didn’t even have a single locus, it was widespread, it developed over time and cut across schools and even involved a core Steiner teacher-training text, a text published by – guess who – the SWSF.
As the crisis unfolded, trust and confidence in Steiner education had drained away to such an extent that by January 2019 Ofsted was moved to request the DfE review the principles of Steiner education in orderto identify any systemic weaknesses it might have. By this point the entire Steiner education enterprise was in question. However, Damien Hindes, DfE Minister for Education, was having none of it, he batted away the request for a root and branch review of Steiner education.
Hinde’s response is in tune with the recent history of DfE which has been proactively supporting Steiners since the days of Tony Blair’s Labour government. Labour, Tory or coalition, the DfE under has been kind to Steiner education. Earlier in the crisis, at the beginning of our timeline, we see an example of DfE sympathy for Steiners. Having received concerns as to safeguarding and leadership at RSSKL, SIS in March 2016 undertook an emergency inspection of RSSKL and found it failed to meet required standards. What usually happens next in such situations is that the failing school draws up an action plan to turn the school around, the plan is signed off by the DfE and the school checked periodically afterwards to ensure the plan is working. RSSKL submitted two such plans but neither was accepted by DfE.
To break this impasse DfE could and arguably should have taken drastic action, e.g. taken enforcement action of some kind, but the DfE opted instead to tread water, sending in SIS to conduct a follow-on Monitoring inspection. This happened at the end of June 2016, presumably to assure the DfE that the school was at least making progress in sorting itself out. According to SIS’ report, not only had progress been made, the school was now compliant with the required standards it had previously failed. Fair enough, the school appeared to be back on track and things might well have ended there but for one thing – when the SIS report was published the DfE received a parental complaint regarding SIS’ findings. Concerned about child safety, DfE sent in Ofsted to undertake an unannounced inspection of RSSKL. Ofsted’s brief was to check the veracity of the SIS findings. Particularly, Ofsted was directed to “look into and report on the school’s safeguarding arrangements”.
Ofsted’s inspection took place in November 2016. Contra-SIS’ findings, Ofsted inspectors found serious safeguarding failings and various required standards unmet at RSSKL. So both RSSKL as a school and SIS as an inspectorate had been tested and found wanting. Although its reputation must have taken a big hit for failing to adequately inspect RSSKL, SIS was still operating and inspecting other Steiners throughout the RSSKL affair. DfE presumably still had confidence in SIS throughout this time. For Ofsted, though, there must have been concerns because through no fault of its own it was unable to determine how representative of SIS was its single failure at RSSKL. The fault for Ofsted’s uncertainty lay with the DfE.
SIS, formed in 2008, had replaced Ofsted as inspectors of (private) Steiner schools in 2009, apparently as a consequence of SWSF lobbying. It earned its keep from DfE which commissioned the body to inspect the schools. Quality assurance checks of SIS inspections and reports was one of Ofsted’s duties but even as a state agency, it too had to be commissioned before it could perform its quality assurance checks. From the list of annual reports on these checks it can be seen there is from 2015 onwards a downturn in numbers and types (on-site monitoring of ongoing inspections or desk-based review of finished reports) of checks. By 2018 Ms Spielman was bluntly pointing out to Hindes, reminding him actually, that she couldn’t do her job properly due to lack of commissioning:
Ofsted can only carry out monitoring of these inspectorates’ activities when commissioned to do so by the DfE. However, it is now the third consecutive year that the monitoring activity commissioned has provided insufficient evidence to make an in-year recommendation about the continued approval of the inspectorates. Therefore, over time, the arrangements agreed between DfE and Ofsted as part of the response to the 2015 spending review have meant that I am unable to provide you with a reasonable level of assurance about the quality of the inspectorates’ work, in order to inform your decision about their on-going approval.
Ms Spielman finished by saying:
I am therefore concerned that, while many inspections are doubtless carried out to a high standard, the system is not currently configured so that any problems can be spotted and tackled, for example regarding potential safeguarding issues in the schools.
As an example of how poor was Ofsted’s quality control of SIS, in 2016/17 Ofsted could only do two desk-based assessments of SIS work.
Amanda Spielman’s pointing to the outcomes of the 2015 spending review (think austerity & spending cuts), suggests DfE’s light touch approach to RSSKL might have more to do with budget constraints than it had with favouritism. Whatever, DfE has to shoulder some of the responsibility for the Steiner schools crisis because its decisions over several years effectively neutered Ofsted’s SIS assessment work. If you look at SIS Steiner inspections post-2015 and compare the results with Ofsted’s inspections of the same schools during the crisis there are some anomalous results. I have only checked the following Steiners: Iona School in 2016 was adjudged outstanding in 2016 by SIS, Wynstones was good in November 2017, Cambridge Steiner in June 2019 was good, verging on outstanding. When Ofsted began inspecting these schools again, Iona in December 2018 was adjudged requires improvement, Wynstones in March 2019 was inadequate and shut down and the Cambridge Steiner in May 2019 required improvement.
Clearly there were problems with SIS inspections beyond the single instance at RSSKL and questions remain as to how DfE’s decision making impacted on the oversight of SIS from 2015 onwards, perhaps even earlier than this. As for its demise, it was in September 2018 that SIS notified DfE of its decision to cease inspecting schools. In this same month the DfE had become aware of serious (continuing) failings at the Exeter Steiner school – its regional schools commissioner sent Steiner Academy Exeter a ‘minded to terminate’ notice dated 26th September 2018. Not that this technically has anything to do with SIS since the Exeter Steiner, as a state funded school, was always inspected by Ofsted. It was, though, yet another example of how badly things were going wrong in another Steiner school, a school enjoying all the support that comes with academisation.
Both Hindes and Ofsted would have been aware of events at Exeter and it seems that in September 2018 a tipping point had been reached. RSSKL had been in the news for two years, the Denis McCarthy story fizzled alongside this and then the Handbook story in June 2018 had further added to Steiner ed concerns. When the Exeter safeguarding mess-up hit the news in September it appears DfE had had enough, SIS was decommissioned. The DfE has maintained that SIS’s closure had nothing to do with Steiner standards, but then again the DfE could hardly have said otherwise without drawing unwelcome attention to its own shortcomings in oversight of SIS.
Speaking further of oversight of the schools, what role did or does SWSF play in ensuring its schools are up to scratch? Well, at the height of the crisis SWSF issued a statement which absolves itself of any responsibility for the failings of its schools, for the dangers the schools exposed children to, for the distress to parents the entire Steiner mess has caused. Neither was there any apology on behalf of the schools it champions. Their reasoning is this:
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…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).
The statement has been discussed in an earlier post and it still baffles me, the shared responsibility bit, but let’s not dwell on it, let’s look to the future. SWSF again:
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.
Statements from SWSF are usually layered, equivocal things, and this one is no exception. Whilst the meaning is clear – SWSF will undertake its own inspections of its schools – the intention is obscure. Why on earth is SWSF going to undertake this chore when the DfE does the job anyway – is it because their schools have an inbuilt tendency to become slack as regards meeting DfE requirements? Who does SWSF report its findings to and how? Apart from these and other questions, why has SWSF switched from its role as a self-described distant hands-off adviser to become a top-down proactive policer of member schools, what’s the significance of this? More research is needed to answer these questions.
So, SWSF and DfE and the SIS are all one or two steps removed from the heart of the crisis, but it was their decision making and actions (or lack of action) that enabled dangerous, toxic cultures and behaviours to develop unchecked within the Steiner school community. This breakdown in oversight of the schools makes sense of the fact that not all the Steiners went wrong, some of them had mechanisms and protocols in place and robust enough governance to ensure schools ran efficiently and safely. Such schools needed no favours from SIS or DfE to meet required standards. For the failing schools, lax oversight and inspection did nothing to prevent further decline with the result that some of them had to close. Even with oversight and intervention such as at Exeter (always Ofsted inspected) and at RSSKL (SIS and then Ofsted inspected) some schools had to close, they couldn’t or wouldn’t implement the corrective measures necessary for them to remain open.
Whatever collective responsibility might mean, apologies for endangering children or for the distress caused to parents caught up in the Steiner schools crisis are not forthcoming from SWSF. For schools I can only find one instance of a school apologising for its mess-ups. Far from being apologetic or taking responsibility, some schools appeared to be in denial of what Ofsted found and some parents threatened legal action to stop schools being forcibly closed. Later, in the aftermath of the crisis and within days of Sylvie Sklan’s NNA article, a host of Steiner ed luminaries and supporters signed an open letter to Amanda Spielman. The ‘letter’ was basically an essay length rant against Ofsted which spells out in its third paragraph its particular concerns. It is worth quoting the paragraph full:
First and foremost, there are several Steiner schools where the level of parental satisfaction with their school is measured at approaching an extraordinary 100 per cent, and yet which Ofsted has deemed to be “Inadequate”. In this age of parental rights and empowerment, in what conceivable circumstances can an organisation claim to know better than the parents what is fitting for those parents and children, when those parents deliberately choose to send their children to these schools based on a fully informed support for the Steiner ethos and pedagogy, and their children are extremely happy in those schools?
Yes, the authors did write that. OK, so, here we have Steiner leaning academics, Steiner ed teacher trainers and even an ex-Archbishop of Canterbury signing up to a mischievous letter priortising parental concerns and feelings over Ofsted’s performance checks of schools. As for the second sentence, it simply isn’t relevant to Ofsted’s core task of checking on school’s compliance checks, checks on safeguarding in particular. If Ofsted finds failings it will reflect in the overall assessment. If the failings are very bad the school is adjudged inadequate. If parents do not understand why a school has failed, they can read the inspection report, everything is clearly set out in inspection reports. If there’s disagreement with the report then take it up with your trustees/governors and as a last resort with Ofsted and the DfE. They will guide you as to how to question an inspection assessment. Writing a load of twistedly worded opinionated rubbish slamming Ofsted for doing its job and putting it out as an Open Letter is just silly.
As if its opening salvo wasn’t lamentable enough, the letter elsewhere addresses the finding of safety issues within Steiner schools:
You might respond by arguing that many of the poor ratings – and not just in Steiner schools – are based on new safeguarding guidelines. Yet how can a gross, catch-all “Inadequate” rating reflect accurately to the public that such a judgement is based largely upon insufficient paperwork and record-keeping (with which many schools struggle, given tight financing and staffing), and does not reflect any actual proven lack of safety? And how can such a high-stakes grading approach not generate a reactive, performative and punishment-avoiding response on the part of recipients of these crassly simplistic gradings?
This time the authors present a Straw Man carrying a briefcase full of special pleading, all in an attempt to excuse the inexcusable – the serious safeguarding failures across many Steiner schools. This despicable open letter pitches serious breaches of safeguarding as mere clerical errors and incorrectly asserts ‘inadequate’ adjudgments of schools do not reflect any actual proven lack of safety. This is plainly wrong, there are oodles of examples of serious safeguarding breaches before and during the Steiner schools crisis. No DBS checks on staff, registers not properly taken, toddlers leaving a school and wandering around town without any staff noticing they were missing, actual ‘proven’ incidents & accidents not or inadequately recorded, bullying of parents wanting to report incidents…the Ofsteds conducted during the Steiner schools crisis are full of such stuff.
The open letter mentions how happy children are at some Steiner schools. Yes, I’m sure they are and I’m sure they felt safe for the most part too and having reached the end of the Steiner crisis timeline I’d like to finish this post with an observation made nearer the beginning of the crisis. It comes from an Ofsted 2016 inspection of RSSKL:
Pupils that spoke to inspectors confirmed that they know how to keep themselves safe and that they know who to go to with any concerns. They say that they are safe– but they are not, because of flaws in the school’s systems and procedures for safeguarding and child protection.
The children are innocents in all this of course, but more and more I wonder, in a failing Anthroposophical school having safeguarding issues, are the children’s hard-core Steiner believing parents willingly blind to the dangers their own children are being exposed to?