Plymouth University Axes Steiner BA Degree Course

University of Plymouth – the ‘enterprise University’ as it promotes itself – has ceased offering its BA course in Steiner Waldorf Education. I was informed by Plymouth’s Faculty of Education that the Steiner BA course was dropped due to insufficient demand for it, the course simply wasn’t attracting enough students.

The educational wing of the UK Anthroposophy movement will be deeply hurt to see the scrapping of the course, a collaborative venture between the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) and the University of Plymouth which has been running since 1992. The Plymouth Steiner Waldorf BA certification is considered by Anthroposophists to be the alternative if not the equivalent to a mainstream teacher training qualification. Also axed has been the Foundation Degree in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education. The fate of a Steiner education degree at MA level and some post-grad work is unclear at this stage. Plymouth assured me that students already enrolled on the now abandoned Steiner courses will be allowed to continue with their studies through to completion.

I was also told the University is considering including ‘some’ Steiner related material within a broad based degree course titled Education Studies but not a single course bearing the Steiner imprimatur survived the carnage at Plymouth. The only fixed Steiner presence remaining at Plymouth is a rump group dubbing itself the Steiner-Waldorf / Hereford Academy Research Network, a rather fancy title for a group of five people.

Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported the story in a piece penned by Polly Curtis, the paper’s education editor. When it comes to Steiner-related news Polly isn’t renowned for any critical analysis of what she’s told by Anthroposophists and her latest effort at the Guardian is highly likely to be simply regurgitated Anthroposophical feed lines.

According to Polly Curtis the reason for Plymouth axing the Steiner Waldorf BA is all down to the cost to students taking a second degree. She writes:

“The university’s decision is being blamed on the government’s withdrawal of funding for second degrees. As many people begin the course later in life after a change in career, they faced charges upward of £8,000 a year instead of the standard £3,225.”

To put that into some sort of context, a typical student without rich parents and seeing a BA/BSc through to completion can expect to be saddled with a debt of about £20,000. Students are aware of the price they’ll have to pay for a degree but it doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on student numbers nationally.

Nowhere in the Guardian report do we find anything about the actual numbers of students enrolling for the axed BA course and so no comparisons of student intake prior to the government’s withdrawal of funding for second degrees can be made. Instead Guardian readers are only offered Anthroposophical educator Christopher Clouder’s explanation for the low intake of students, which was that ‘people who wanted to do this course were priced out of it’. That explanation presumes most middle-aged people wanting to take up teaching Steiner education already have a degree of some sort. Possible but even if it’s true the way around it if cost is an issue would be to opt for a PGCE and Plymouth does offer PGCE’s (peruse here for examples). Rather than axe a course at short notice –first term is well under way and ends in a few weeks – surely if there was sufficient interest in the course then the University would instigate a Steiner slanted PGCE course. Under current rules the middle-aged or any other existing degree holders suffer no penalty for taking a PGCE.

Of course providing a PGCE for Steiner types would reduce the intake for the Steiner Education BA course but Plymouth didn’t only axe the Steiner Waldorf BA, it also axed its Foundation Degree in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education.  This course is described on the SWSF website as:

A two-year programme for Early Years Practitioners and Assistants. Operates through flexible and distributed learning. It is taught in a variety of locations and is structured to enable students to study over some weekends, in residentials and in the classroom. This is accredited at Level 5. There is a progression to the Steiner Waldorf BA (Hons.), an Early Childhood Studies degree or Early Years Professional Status.

Level 5 being degree level last I heard surely there’d be room for manoeuvre here, perhaps merge the two BA level courses and create a Steiner PGCE?

Polly Curtis might have missed a scoop or two for the Guardian.

Not reported in the Guardian and not mentioned by Plymouth’s Faculty of Education is that the university has had a recent appointment, the new boss there being Vice Chancellor Professor Wendy Purcell. Remember that new tagline Plymouth has, the enterprise University? Well, Wendy’s presence is entirely in keeping with that. The university has been made over to one more in keeping with a market driven education sector. Departments have been downsized, the faces that didn’t fit with the new enterprise ethos have been sacked, and efficiencies have been made.

We have heard rumours here at UK Anthroposophy that financial management at Plymouth had been somewhat lax in recent years and, on appointment, one of Wendy’s first acts was to see to the removal from post (given the sack was the rumour I heard) of a Head of Finance at Plymouth.

Against that backdrop of a makeover of Plymouth from provincial and pedestrian university to a lean clean market-driven machine it is little wonder that an esoteric low intake course such as the Steiner BA would get the chop.

Readers might take note that requests made by myself and others to Plymouth for details of the Steiner Waldorf BA course materials – its reading lists and the like – have in the past been either refused or ignored. So, even were there to be more to the reason for axing the BA course than Plymouth or the Guardian is giving out, it’s going to be a hard task to discover it. I’d ask the SWSF for a comment but, sad to say, the SWSF refuses to acknowledge let alone reply to my emails. I’d also email a comment to the Guardian report but for some reason or other the paper isn’t taking comments on that Polly Curtis report.

Happily, a correspondent using Freedom of Information has prised from Plymouth’s Faculty of Education basic documents such as recommended reading for students of the BA Steiner course and has passed on findings to me. It shouldn’t have to be this way. Members of the public shouldn’t have to resort to legal means to discover what or how our publicly funded Universities are teaching BA students; registered charities such as SWSF shouldn’t behave like sulky adolescents when they receive enquiries from a member of the public.

Anyway, the documentation in front of me includes the Student Handbook for year 2008/9, hardly a top-secret hush hush item. Ironically, it proclaims the BA course to have had “an important role in helping the Steiner Waldorf movement develop professional standards in teacher education”, standards the secretive SWSF and adminstrators of the BA course might fruitfully emulate.

The contents of the information within the Handbook, the course outlines, reading lists and the recommended texts would appear bizarre to the general public or to academics and others approaching education from any perspective other than that of the esoteric/occult and spiritual one informing that of the Anthroposopophical educator.

Perhaps fear of ridicule is the reason Plymouth tried for so long not to divulge what students would be learning there, ridicule for delivering a teacher training course from an esoteric or occult perspective. However, there are already examples of Steiner teacher training course outlines, reading lists etc out there on the net. Steiner pedagogy is fairly rigidly adhered to wherever it is taught or put into practice and so it follows that the teaching materials for one course will be pretty much the same wherever the course is taught. So, why the secrecy about Plymouth’s own Steiner teacher training course materials?

Well, one thing that will differentiate Anthroposophical training courses from country to country is the written language of the texts students will be reading. As we know, Steiner lectured and wrote in German and the English translations of his original work are often Bowdlerised, or incomplete or truncated versions of the originals (see here for example). Perhaps amongst the recommended texts for students of the Plymouth Steiner course some unexpurgated examples of Steiner’s infamous racism can be found but I’m beggared if I’m going to source the texts, purchase or borrow them and then read them all to see if anything toxic is within them. Instead I’ve listed the texts here on the blog so that readers can see what prospective UK Steiner taught teachers read before they’re let loose on children. I’d be particularly interested to hear from readers should they know if any of the listed texts contain examples of Steiner’s racism or anything else in need of a public airing.

Presumably most readers will know of the controversies surrounding Steiner and Anthroposophy and so it’d be pointless rehashing the various claims and counter claims on the issues here in this post. There will be an article covering the controversies here on the blog at some stage but let’s just stick with Plymouth University for now and demonstrate via the recommended reading for its Steiner Waldorf  Education BA course an example of the way Steiner belief is structured on racist notions.

Here’s a quote from one of the recommended texts students study, Steiner’s ‘Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment’:

“…people and races are after all,merely different developmental stages in our evolution toward a pure humanity.The more perfectly that individual members of a race or people express the pure,ideal human type-the more they have worked their way through from the physical and mortal to the super sensible and immortal realm-the “higher” this race or nation is.”

Now, I don’t have the exact same edition of the text the quote comes from but it is only slightly different from this quote:

“…peoples and races are but steps leading to pure humanity. A race or a nation stands so much the higher, the more perfectly its members express the pure, ideal human type, the further they have worked their way from the physical and perishable to the supersensible and imperishable. The evolution of man through the incarnations in ever higher national and racial forms is thus a process of liberation.”

The above quote is from page 108 of the fifth edition of the same Steiner text and was published in 1914.

OK, that reeks of racism to me but we don’t know the context within which students on the Steiner BA course will be considering it and the example is only offered as an example of one strand of Steiner’s racist doctrine.

Returning to Plymouth and the formerly highly confidential Steiner Waldorf Education BA programme’s official Student Handbook. The Handbook is a good start when looking at the links from the Steiner camp within the Faculty of Education at Plymouth to the UK Anthroposophy movement as a whole (example here). Oh boy, you only have to scratch the surface…

From the Student Handbook for year 2008/09, page 3, regarding expanding their BA programme:

“…we plan to complement this with regular off-campus residentials at Trebullom Farm, an Anthroposophical environmental teaching and learning centre in rural North Cornwall”

Trebullom Farm is owned by Peredur Trust, a charity and registered company running an Anthroposophical social care residential setting. It has an estate valued at over 1.25 million quid, runs a biodynamic farm as part of the remedial work and setting it provides for between 6 to 8 residents in need of care. Until recently the Trust kept itself to itself but appears to be freeing up some of its spare land to other Anthroposophical projects so as to steady out a somewhat erratic income. Plymouth’s John Burnett – Programme Director of the University of Plymouth’s BA in Steiner Waldorf Education – set up Trebullom Farm Project in Autumn of 2006 as a sort of Anthroposophical environmental residential school. At about the same time Bowhill Educational Trust, a near dormant(edit January 2013: now defunct) Anthroposophical environmental charity, became involved with both the Farm project and with Peredur. This triumvirate was actively planning Anthroposophical eco-style weekend bashes last I heard.

Again from the Student Handbook, page 10, and describing student modules of study that have a ‘hands on’ approach:

“There are residential workshops led by the Hiram Trust where you will be introduced to aspects of the craft curriculum”

Hiram Trust, a registered charity, is another Anthroposophical organisation, is or was an affiliate member of SWSF and at the time of writing is linked/pointed  to by the national Anthroposophical Society website.

Hiram Trust has an interesting constitutional power in that it allows itself to ‘explore the therapeutic value of a craft curriculum for the incarnating adolescent’, has an annual income in the order of £60,000 and assets of over a million quid. In year 2005 through to at least 2007 a trustee of Hiram was also Chief Director of Ruskin Mill Educational Trust, another Anthroposophical organisation. Ruskin is a very big player in the Anthroposophical social care field. Hiram rents space to Ruskin for one of  its, Ruskin’s, operations. Now get this, again for year 2007, the brother of the trustee who was also Chief Executive of Ruskin is the director of The Waldorf College Project (edit website appears to be compromised Feb 2019, link removed, the registered charity is now defunct). The Waldorf College, an Anthroposophical organisation, received donations from Hiram in the same year. Talk about incestuous!

Nothing much else in the Student Handbook to note except to point out that many of the lecturers, visiting lecturers etc will have links to the wider Anthroposophical community. Christopher Clouder, for example,  is a tutor on the Plymouth Steiner Waldorf BA module titled ‘ The Image of the Human Being Derived from Anthroposophy’. Clouder is amongst other things the current boss of SWSF.

There are and have been links between Plymouth University and the wider UK Anthropsophical community for a long time. In recent times Beechtree Steiner kindergarten in Leeds reported a small donation, about £500, from the University in year 2007, another £1000 went to Hebden Bridge Steiner Initiative (aka Calder Valley Steiner Education) spread over years 2006 and 2007. Various other Anthroposophical schools have seen Plymouth Steiner Education BA students training within their schools via placements and so on.

Regarding Plymouth University, two other Anthroposophical organisations are of interest. Novalis Trust (formerly known as Cotswold Chine School) and the Godparents Anthroposophical Training Fund (formerly the Godparents Association) have long and strong links with University of Plymouth.

Novalis Trust is now an amalgam of several Anthroposophical organisations but its core activity is in Anthroposophical social care. In years 2006 and 2007 it reported that 14 members of its staff were studying for MA degrees at Plymouth . In 2006, when known as Cotswold Chine School and operated solely as a residential special needs school with a maximum of around 40 pupils, it reported 13 teachers to be ‘working toward the MA in Waldorf in partnership with Plymouth University’ and another 4 teachers working for postgrad certification in Special Needs Education at the University of the West of England (UWE) with UWE delivering some teaching sessions at Cotswold Chine.

Back in 2003 Cotswold Chine reported that it had  ‘effectively formed a partnership with both Plymouth University and the University of the West of England with courses being delivered at Cotswold Chine…..Initially 15 members of Cotswold Chine Education department are studying the new modules’.

UWE was the University of Philip Woods at the time he was undertaking and leading the government commissioned research eventually published as ‘Steiner Schools in England’, government commenced state funding of Steiner/Anthroposophical education after publishing Woods’ research. Just as a matter of interest, our old friend Dr Peter Gruenewald was Cotswold’s School Medical Officer around the year 2005.

The Godparents Anthroposophical Training Fund (GATF), like Novalis Trust, is both a registered charity and an incorporated company. GATF doesn’t fund godparents, it funds students, students studying Steiner courses at Plymouth University. It has another thing in common with Plymouth University and SWSF; it doesn’t like to divulge information.

GATF’s registered office is in Stourbridge, home of a host of other Anthroposophical organisations. GATF reported an income of around £88,000 last year and assets of £807,000. The secretary, Jane Avison, is also a trustee of Drayton Manor Trust, an Anthroposophical special needs school (now defunct Feb 2019). The majority of GATF income comes from two sources, Drayton Manor Trust and Camphill. GATF annual accounts routinely convey thanks to Drayton and ‘Camphill’ for their continued support. When asked to clarify which Camphill was donating to GATF, the GATF secretary, Jane Avison, cited the Data Protection Act in declining to divulge the information.

Back in 2005/2006 Drayton Manor Trust reported in its accounts for year ending 2006 a £10,000 pound donation to GATF and a £20,000 to SWSF and reported that during the same period Mrs Jane Avison was an administrator and employee of both SWSF and Drayton Manor but that ‘She is excluded from any decisions to donate funds to trusts in which she is a connected party.’ Apart from SWSF refusing to answer or acknowledge my own emails, the SWSF -according to this newspaper report – also refuses to make public the name of the person or organisation stumping up the sponsorship money necessary for and enabling the Hereford Steiner Academy to go ahead.

More pertinent to what is happening at Plymouth, in recent years right up to its latest accounts and report for year ending 2008 GATF has reported the charity’s grant making policy:

“Grants are made to students on the BA course in Waldorf Education at the University of Plymouth, which are funded by the donation received from Drayton Manor Trust. Otherwise, it is the policy to only make grants in exceptional cases when a loan is not appropriate.”

For the same year GATF reported outgoings as part of its charitable activities (i.e grants and loans) amounting to just over £84,000. The amount was over £90,000 the preceding year. For the year 2008, £54,000 of the £84,000 charitable expenditure went out in the form of grants and, as we know via the GATF grant making policy, a lot of that £54,000 would have gone to students on Plymouth’s Steiner Waldorf Education course. No shortage of money for the Steiner BA students there it seems and no shortage of students for the MA course at Plymouth.

If a dozen and more students all from the same small Anthroposophical organisation enrolled for the MA course then surely students nationwide must have been clamouring to get into Steiner courses at Plymouth. Competition to get into Plymouth’s Steiner courses must have been very fierce. If it wasn’t then it raises serious questions about the fairness and openness of the admissions procedure to the MA course and perhaps the other Steiner courses at Plymouth, questions we can add to those concerning the reason for Plymouth’s axing of its Steiner related courses.

(Update January 2013: Since the Plymouth Steiner BA was axed the Godparents Anthroposophical Training Fund’s annual income has near halved. On its recently launched website it now claims to be funding students ‘undertaking designated Anthroposophical vocational training courses in the UK’.)

Update Feb 2019: the GATF policy re grants, notes on expenditure appear to be more transparent than they had been, see e.g. any accounts here