Ofsted Steiner Inspections: a Review

There were 29 schools listed on the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship’s (SWSF) website at the time I started writing this post. There had been 30 until Ofsted finally put the Rudolf Steiner School King’s Langley (RSSKL) out of its misery and closed it down. What Ofsted found at ‘Rotten to the core’ RSSKL and what has come to light since its closure has been awful, shocking stuff. Fearful that the chaos and dangers seen at RSSKL may exist in other Steiner school settings, Ofsted went into overdrive inspecting a further 11 schools during November and December 2018. The results were dire: 3 of the 4 state funded Steiner Academies inspected were rated inadequate, one of them was closed immediately due to safety concerns. Three other schools were found to be inadequate and three more were adjudged ‘requires improvement’.

Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman wrote to her own boss, Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education to report on what was found and made clear her thoughts as to why the systemic chronic failures occurred:

Given the prevalence and seriousness of these issues across both state-funded and independent Steiner schools, they raise questions about whether these common failures are a result of the underlying principles of Steiner education.

And she urged Hinds 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.

As the government currently is as dysfunctional as some of the Steiner schools we’ve been hearing about, I highly doubt there’ll be much done about this matter. If Hinds stays in post long enough he might find time to read the Woods report into Steiner schools and from that he should be able to fathom out that Steiner schools are Anthroposophical schools – they deliver education according to Steiner’s racist fantasist belief system. Anyway, while we wait for government to do its job, I’ve done a bit more digging around.

I took a look at all of the inspection data I could find for the English SWSF listed schools as at 5th July 2019. Only Ofsted inspections have been looked at because Ofsted is the state agency responsible for inspecting English schools. Strictly speaking we can’t compare Ofsted reports with other agency reports from e.g. Ulster or Wales because they have slightly different inspection methodologies and ways of reporting findings. So it’d be a bit dodgy trying to compare results from, say, Wales with those from England.

The inspections have taken place within the past 6 months or so and can be taken to provide a snapshot of the condition of near all SWSF’s member schools in England. There are some gaps in the data though. One inspection (Lancaster Steiner School) remains to be published. Also, the reports for Leeds Steiner and Steiner Academy Hereford cannot be used here because the they are Monitoring or Short inspection reports which by their nature do not allow comparison with the other reports considered here, they’re briefer basically. For Leeds, theirs was a follow-up report to see how the school has progressed since deficiencies were noted in the previous inspection/s and for Hereford the report only looked at safety aspects as part of the Steiner Ofsted ‘blitz’. Ofsted’s last inspection of it in June 2018 had pronounced the Leeds Steiner (aka Beechtree Steiner Initiative or Kindergarten) requires improvement. According to the monitoring report, in March 2019 it still doesn’t meet all necessary standards. Hereford was adjudged ‘Good’ for its safety/welfare. Leaving these two out of consideration shouldn’t unduly bias the analysis given below.

So, I ended up with  22 Ofsted reports to consider. The usual yardstick parents will use when assessing a school makes use of Ofsted’s summary assessment of the overall effectiveness of a school. There are only 4 possible descriptors of the summary assessment.

1 Inadequate

2 Requires improvement

3 Good

4 Outstanding

Using those terms when looking at the English Steiner schools:

11 are Inadequate, 6 Require improvement and 5 are good. None are outstanding.

SchoolRatingDate of Inspection
Alder Bridge School InadequateFeb 2019
Brighton WaldorfInadequateMar 2019
Bristol Steiner School GoodMar 2019
Calder Valley Steiner School (closing July 2019)Requires improvementMar 2019
Cambridge Steiner School Requires improvementMay 2019
Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School GoodJun 2019
Greenwich Steiner School Requires improvementNov 2018
Iona School Requires improvementDec 2018
London Steiner SchoolInadequateNov 2018
Michael Hall School InadequateMar 2019
Michael House (closing July 2019)InadequateDec 2018
Moorland Waldorf Initiative Requires improvementDec 2018
Norwich Steiner School GoodMay 2019
Ringwood Waldorf School GoodApr 2019
South Devon Steiner School?InadequateApr 2019
St. Paul’s Steiner School GoodMar 2019
Steiner Academy BristolInadequateNov 2018
Steiner Academy Exeter InadequateOct 2018
Steiner Academy Frome InadequateNov 2018
The St. Michael Steiner School Requires improvementMar 2019
Wynstones School InadequateMar 2019
York Steiner School InadequateMay 2019

We can bring more meat to the table by looking at how Ofsted has rated schools according to 5 different aspects of the schools. These different aspects are

aspect 1: leadership & management

aspect 2 quality of teaching/learning/assessment

aspect 3 personal development/behavior/welfare

aspect 4 outcome for pupils

aspect 5 early years provision

The aspects are rated using the same descriptors as are used in the overall assessment – Inadequate, Requires improvement, Good or Outstanding. In arriving at its overall assessment of a school what Ofsted does is rate each of the school’s 5 aspects and then takes the average of the 5 to arrive at the general overall assessment, the ‘yardstick’ mentioned earlier. Well, that’s sort of what Ofsted does – my understanding of inspections is that child and school safety considerations weigh more heavily in the mix than do other aspects. Be that as it may, the Ofsted method is standardised and appears to be consistently applied. You can delve into the innards of Ofsted’s inspection process in this online handbook.

Instead of using verbal descriptors we can rank Ofsted’s ratings from 1 to 4 where 1 is the lowest score 4 is best. So 1=Inadequate, 2=Requires improvement, 3=Good, 4=Outstanding. Just to make this clear, the first school in the table below is the failing Alder Bridge Steiner Waldorf school – its overall score is 1 (Inadequate). Its aspects scores are 1,1,2,1,2, for its five aspects i.e. they are Inadequate, Inadequate, Requires improvement, Inadequate, Requires improvement. Its average (rounded down) is 1, Inadequate. Hope that helps, here’s the table.

SchoolRatingDate of Inspectionaspect1aspect2aspect3aspect4aspect5
Alder Bridge School 1Feb 201911212
Brighton Waldorf1Mar 201911213
Bristol Steiner School 3Mar 201933333
Calder Valley Steiner School (closing July 2019)2Mar 201922222
Cambridge Steiner School 2May 201922323
Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School 3Jun 201933333
Greenwich Steiner School 2Nov 201832324
Iona School 2Dec 201822322
London Steiner School1Nov 201811111
Michael Hall School 1Mar 201911313
Michael House (closing July 2019)1Dec 201811111
Moorland Waldorf Initiative 2Dec 201822222
Norwich Steiner School 3May 201933333
Ringwood Waldorf School 3Apr 201933333
South Devon Steiner School1Apr 201911111
St. Paul’s Steiner School 3Mar 201933333
Steiner Academy Bristol1Nov 201811111
Steiner Academy Exeter 1Oct 201811111
Steiner Academy Frome 1Nov 201811111
The St. Michael Steiner School 2Mar 201922322
Wynstones School 1Mar 201911111
York Steiner School 1May 201911212

What becomes apparent from the table is that no matter how bad or good a Steiner school might be, a school will typically perform better in two of its 5 aspects – in aspect3 and aspect5 – than it does in the other aspects. These are the aspects of a school that are to do with personal development/behavior/welfare and with early years provision. This is not to say that Steiner schools are strong in those areas of school life and provision – they are simply usually the least worst aspects of an English SWSF member Steiner school.

That does kind of fit with a common held perception of Steiner schools as being good at Early Years Provision, kindergartens and the like. Except that the Steiner schools aren’t typically even ‘good’ in that area – according to Ofsted their average, the typical Steiner school if you will, would be a smidgen above ‘requires improvement’. Looking at the table we can see that only one school – the Greenwich Steiner – was adjudged ‘Outstanding’ in any aspect of school provision. The average for all schools in this same area of provision was dragged down by 7 ‘Inadequates’ and a half dozen ‘Requires improvements’.

Another common held perception of Steiner schools is that safety of schools is weak and that bullying in particular is thought to be a common problem within Steiner schools. Lack of data makes cross-comparisons with mainstream very difficult but even so it won’t hurt to have a look at the Ofsteds to see what mention there might be of bullying in Steiner school settings.

It turns out that bullying is mentioned in 7 of the 22 schools inspected. Going by by the wording – Ofsteds don’t rate or scale this problem – bullying is worse at some schools than it is at others. At Brighton Steiner for example:

“Pupils say that bullying does happen in the school. Although they report that staff do try to deal with this, some pupils are not confident that this stops the same problem re-occurring in some cases.”

At London Steiner School they know bullying happens but have no clue as to the extent of the problem:

“Incidents of bullying are sometimes dealt with informally or not recorded systematically. Pupils told inspectors that bullying is unusual and dealt with well. However, inconsistent records mean leaders and staff have a poor awareness of whether the school’s work to prevent or deal with bullying is successful.”

For Moorland Waldorf the problem seems to be much less of a deal than it is elsewhere, pupils reporting that (bullying) “does not happen often.” Similarly, at Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School:

“Incidents of bullying happen, but they are rare.”

Inspectors flagged up bullying as a problem in 3 of our 4 state funded Steiners. If anything, the problem of bullying in state funded Steiners is worse than it is in private Steiner schools. At the Steiner Academy Bristol there was:

“a rising number of bullying incidents being recorded since May 2018. Younger pupils raised some concerns with inspectors about bullying. They say that some other pupils sometimes call them names or tease them when they do not understand something.”

While at the Steiner Academy Exeter:

“Those pupils who spoke to inspectors had mixed views about bullying. However, almost a quarter of parents who responded to Ofsted’s questionnaire reported that bullying was not dealt with effectively at the school.”

Finally, at Steiner Academy Frome:

“A minority of parents have raised concerns about bullying. Pupils who spoke to inspectors did not express any concerns about bullying. However, there is no evidence that senior leaders have effective oversight of allegations or incidents of bullying. Records of incidents are not clear.”

A mixed bag, then, so far as bullying goes but it’s quite a sizeable bag isn’t it – at 31% of the Steiner schools in England Ofsted inspectors passed comment on bullying. From inspectors’ remarks it seems fair to say that at 5 of the schools, which is 22% of them, the incidence of bullying is more severe than ‘rare’.

As for other facets of Steiner schools, well, Ofsted will be looking at their Steiner school findings in much finer detail than I could ever hope to and we can look forward in the coming months to Ofsted bringing attention to any deficiencies and strengths the schools might share.

My own impression after reading the reports more than once is that leadership is a major factor in the success or failure of a school. Trustees of the charitable independent status schools are responsible for oversight of their schools. There are multiple instances of schools where trustees are basically failing in their duties. Some trustees of schools don’t even know what the requirements regarding practice and minimum standards necessary for their schools are. Even when they do, they often fail to hold teachers to account in the event, say, of failings in educational standards. Trustees in more than one school have not taken a lead in developing or nurturing policies. Their counterparts in the state funded schools appear have a better grasp of what their duties are but fail in similar manner to hold teachers to account, drive policies forward and so on. Elsewhere in the hierarchy, school leaders themselves are often lacking in direction. Whilst the collegiate Steiner style of governance was lambasted at one school, schools with a head teacher also fail so far as effective leadership skills goes. Teacher shortages and shallow teacher subject knowledge was flagged up here and there. Mishandling or non-accountability of spending of SEND finances was noted at a couple of schools. Child safety problems came up fairly often. In well run schools safety was usually taken care of very well. In some of the not so well run schools children would have been a lot safer staying away from their school than they would be when attending.

Having said all of that, there is some succour for SWSF within the current batch of Ofsteds. Some were adjudged ‘Good’ by Ofsted and a very few of the schools are reported to have successfully harmonised Steinerian pedagogy and praxis with national curriculum requirements, are safe places for kids, are well led and so on.

It’s not possible to ascertain from Ofsted reports how far (or if at all) these more successful schools had to compromise their Steinerian values in order to function satisfactorily in accordance with national curriculum and other requirements, we’ll have to wait for the result of Ofsted’s investigations to hear more about it. This is an interesting point because the state has recently suddenly (as in overnight?) scrapped the Schools Inspectorate Service (SIS), an agency the SWSF successfully lobbied for as an alternative to Ofsted inspections of their schools. If the state has rescinded one concession it made to SWSF it must mean any other exceptions/exemptions it might have made in the past might also be revoked. As has already been pointed out in an earlier blog post, so long as SWSF’s schools don’t bring unwanted attention to government or government policy – if they don’t embarrass government – then SWSF can look forward to continued state sponsorship and support. Scrapping the SIS and sending in Ofsted to inspect all English Steiner schools might signal the beginning of the end of the decade long love affair between the state and SWSF. On the other hand, government may be switching Steiners to a different agency. In which case government is saying to SWSF keep calm and carry on, wait until the fuss dies down, business as usual afterwards. We shall see.