Steiner racism & state funding – Tories offer SWSF lessons on spin

The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) ‘special pre-election seminar’ mentioned in an earlier post has now taken place and a concise and accurate record of the ‘special’ seminar appears below. It notes comments from top Conservative spokespeople concerning Steiner racism and other Steiner controversies and in how to deal with them. It’s quite clear that the Tories are aware of the issues – one of the Tories present at the seminar even offered the SWSF free media training ‘to prepare them for tackling the PR problems’.

The record of the seminar also notes that a gathering consisting in the main of Steiner school trustees and administrators is aware of and accepts that there is an element of racism within Anthroposophy, the ideology underpinning Seiner education.

The ‘special seminar’ also saw SWSF member schools air their differences regarding the pros and cons of state funding Steiner schools. Many schools and individuals within SWSF fear state funding will necessitate or lead to dilution of Steiner educational orthodoxy. Such fears were not allayed on hearing at the seminar that the Tories will expect schools ensure children meet basic standards of reading, writing and numeracy at all levels – this runs contrary to fundamental Steiner pedagogy and practice

The entire transcript of the ‘special seminar’ is given below and has been passed on to me on the understanding that the person sending it to me remains anonymous.  I can assure readers that the transcript is a fair and accurate record of the seminar, it has been verified and would withstand scrutiny in a court of law. Seminar attendees were not bound by any formal or informal code of confidentiality as regards what was said and decided at the seminar, the seminar was publicly advertised, members of the public could and did turn up on the day and attend – seems to me fair enough that a record of the seminar be available to the wider public and so I’m happy to have it here on the blog.


(start of transcript)

“Moving Forward – A special pre-election seminar about possible developments in the state funding opportunity for Steiner schools”

Tuesday 17th November 2009.

Charity Centre, 24 Stephenson Way, London, NW1

In Attendance:

  • Sylvie Sklan, lead representative for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and Emma Craigie, daughter of journalist William Rees-Mogg and famous supporter of Steiner education.
  • Rachel Wolf, director of New Schools Network, a charity that aims to improve quality of education by increasing the number of independent schools within the state sector, and former education adviser to the Conservative Party.
  • Sam Freedman, current education adviser to the Conservative party and head of think-tank Policy Exchange’s education unit.
  • A number of trustees and administrators from various Steiner schools.
  • An observer.

The event was split between two sessions; a morning session lasting around 3 hours and an afternoon session lasting for 1 hour 30 mins.

SUMMARY OF MATTERS IN THE MORNING SESSION:

The morning session started with an introduction from Sylvie Sklan as to why the Steiner Schools Fellowship is in talks with the Conservative party with regard to state funding. It was explained that because of the “likely” change of government in the next election, it was important for the Fellowship to lobby, as it had done previously under the Labour government, for state funding. The arguments in favour of state funding were not discussed at length but were alluded to, and may be taken to include greater financial security for the schools, the ability to enrol more students from economically diverse backgrounds, and the chance to lose the “independent schools” label that implies exclusivity.

A discussion between the various trustees and administrators around the topic of state funding and whether or not each school would be minded to apply for state funding was held prior to hearing from Rachel Wolf and Sam Freedman. There was a mixed response from the various trustees present. A number of schools were keen to secure funding for the reasons mentioned above. However other schools were less keen. The representatives from one school, for example, said that they had investigated the funding arrangements presently available under the “Academy school” scheme and felt that those provisions were inadequate. Other schools were wary of state funding because of the concerns of teachers that such funding would allow the government to intervene and interfere with the running of the schools. Sylvie Sklan concluded this discussion by stating that it would be down to the individual schools to decide whether or not they wished to apply for state funding and that “state funding is not just about money, it’s about sustainability and social inclusion”.

The discussion was followed by a question and answer session with Rachel Wolf. She explained the role of her organisation, the New Schools Network. She stated that the organisation performed 3 functions; a) to give guidance to certain schools looking to become state funded; b) to communicate the benefits of the policy being discussed today; c) to research the policy by looking at the experience of schools in the UK and abroad that are involved in similar state funding arrangements.

Rachel Wolf described the process of applying for state funding as envisaged under the Tory policy. This would involve submitting to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (“DCSF”) a business plan, an indication of parental interest in the school, and a full description of the curriculum and ethos of the school. The reason for making the last submission is so that the DCSF can root out ‘extremism’. She stated that in order for a school to remain state funded, “basic levels of achievement” would have to be displayed at all levels throughout the school.

Sam Freedman then answered more technical questions about the Conservative party policy. Questions asked concerned the level of funding that the schools could expect to receive; how a Conservative government would facilitate the schools acquiring better premises; what “basic levels of achievement” would be expected; would a Conservative government interfere with the management of the schools; what was Conservative policy on teacher training; how long will the policy take to implement; would the Conservative government continue to allow Steiner schools to opt out of the National Curriculum; how does the Conservative government expect to afford the migration of 4000 Steiner pupils to state funding.

The responses to these questions were generally pleasing and reassuring to the trustees and administrators. The only point that the Sam Freedman (and Rachel Wolf) were particularly sure to press home was that of “basic levels of achievement”. They felt that the schools had to be accountable for ensuring that children were meeting basic standards of reading, writing and numeracy at all levels. This, it was acknowledged, may cause some conflict with the Steiner method of teaching.

Race and PR:

 

Sam Freedman was asked by a trustee, at the very end of the morning session, whether or not he could foresee any other particular problems with Steiner schools becoming state funded.

He responded, verbatim, as follows:

“Not in terms of the way we want to legislate, but, I mean I’m sure this is something that you all know about anyway, there’s a big PR issue, and if a lot of Steiner schools open quite quickly in the state sector, I mean I’ve been, erm, I’ve had all sorts of people writing to me just because they found out that I was coming to this meeting. Attacking. Attacking the Steiner Schools… Anonymously. Through social networking. People find out who you are, find out your account number and bombard you with articles, negative articles… This was pointing out all the things they think are wrong with Steiner movement, link after link after link. And that’s just from me coming to this meeting, so you have to be aware, well I know you’ll all be aware anyway, but this will be on a much, much bigger scale.”

The discussion went on to identify two problem PR areas: 1) Accounts from parents who are or have been unhappy with the Steiner schooling system and those that have had negative experiences associated with the schools, and 2) the writings of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy.

It was identified that the latter issue was going to be a greater problem.

Sam Freedman stated that it was important for the Schools to “explain to people quite strongly that they are not teaching what he [Rudolf Steiner] said”. He likened the situation to the fact that not all Christians believe every word of the Bible.

One of the trustees noted that the very name “Steiner”, is potentially limiting. He noted that in other countries schools have called themselves “Waldorf” schools so as to distance themselves from the Steiner writings.

Rachel Wolf suggested that the Schools should therefore seek to get a “more mixed group of people interested from the beginning, because that is the best way that you [the Steiner schools] can  appear like an equal, diverse and principled organisation, and you want that from day 1 if you possibly can, and you should start doing that now.”

The importance of getting a more diverse intake of children was noted, given the likely effects of the negative PR currently circulating on the internet, coupled with images of classes filled with only white, middle-class children. It was acknowledged that such an image would be very damaging to the movement.

An observer asked Sam Freedman whether or not a Conservative government would consider intervening with Steiner teacher training to ensure that the racist aspects of Steiner’s writings would not be included. Sam Freedman replied by stating that if the issue becomes a big PR problem for Steiner schools, and the state is funding those schools, it will become a big PR problem for the state. He went on to say that in light of this, Steiner schools should seek to nip any potential problems with their teacher training in the bud, because if ministers feel under pressure from negative PR, this is likely to be problematic for the schools. Sam Freedman stated that the Schools should ensure that they can explain their position very clearly, so that they can counter the negative criticisms immediately.

At the close of the morning session, Rachel Wolf stated that she would be happy to offer the Steiner schools Fellowship free media training to prepare them for tackling the PR problems.

SUMMARY OF MATTERS IN THE AFTERNOON SESSION

 

Sam Freedman and Rachel Wolf did not attend the afternoon session. The session comprised of a group discussion amongst the trustees and administrators concerning the matters raised in the morning session. Emma Craigie identified the key issues as being PR, accountability and assessment, admissions and funding, however PR was the main area of discussion.

It was acknowledged that the Steiner schools Fellowship would need to initiate and fund a proper campaign to counter the “poison” on the internet. A representative from one Steiner school felt that the politicians were very aware of the problem and that they would “run a mile in the opposite direction if they have a lot of people coming at them saying you’re funding a weird cult that brain washes children.”

It was suggested that an “antidote” website be set up to explain the criticisms that are levelled against the Steiner schools. It was also suggested the Steiner schools Fellowship take up the offer of free media training offered by the New Schools Network, although it was acknowledged that the Fellowship would require more than this, indeed they would need full-time “professional help”. A PR officer would be required to place positive stories in the media, and also to counter the stream of negative ones. It was considered important to get a PR strategy sorted out soon, especially if a large number of Steiner schools opt-in for state funding at an early stage. It was felt that the Steiner schools Fellowship should start cultivating good media relations as soon as possible.

It was felt that a central plank of the PR strategy should be to bring media into the schools to show exactly what goes on there, and that another thing to consider would be a re-branding exercise. It is the association with Steiner’s writings that is perceived to be the main problem.

It was also stated that it would be important for the Steiner schools Fellowship to make sure that they have a clear PR message to convey to the politicians themselves. This would reassure the politicians that the negative criticisms aimed at the schools are not justified, and if there were a public outcry about the schools, the politicians would themselves be in a position to refute the claims. Indeed, there would be a government PR machine available to help refute the claims.

Re-branding was considered in more detail. This would be a way of isolating the educational philosophy of Steiner without being associated with the controversial aspects of Anthroposophy. In any event, the importance of making it clear that the schools did not teach the racist aspects of Anthroposophy was stressed.

An observer was asked which Steiner quotes he/she had seen online and elsewhere. The oberver gave the example of the spiritual hierarchy of the races. It was acknowledged that the Steiner schools Fellowship should give a clear and categorical rebuttal of these aspects of Steiner’s work. Clear statements should be made stating “We do not believe that human beings evolve through the races. We do not believe that blond hair bestows intelligence, etc…”.

It was felt that there may be some difficulty in making a blanket rebuttal of all Anthroposophy because many people throughout the Steiner schools system, especially teachers, strongly support many aspects of that belief system. If teachers were asked to make a blanket rebuttal of Anthroposophy, many of them may not do this.  In any event it was agreed that a message along the line of “The Steiner School is committed to equal opportunities and is opposed to racism and all forms of discrimination” should be placed on all Steiner school websites and promotional material.

There was some concern that the PR campaign attempting to rebut the racial aspects of anthroposophy could back fire because it would bring the subject to the attention of people who were not aware of the problem. Any PR campaign of this nature may necessarily have to be a reaction to, but not a pre-emption of, negative press arising from Anthroposophy.

The example of how an American group known as “Plans” (People for Legal and Non-sectarian Schools) were attempting to take Steiner schools to court in America was raised. This group opposed Steiner schools on the basis that Anthroposophy constitutes a religion, and as such these schools were forbidden from being publicly funded by the American constitution. It was felt by the trustees and administrators that unless a PR strategy was deployed soon, similar groups opposed to the state funding of Steiner schools would arise in the UK.

The afternoon session concluded with some brief discussions of the other matter raised. (end of transcript)