There are many strange ideas about Steiner schools. A ‘normal’ parent, Nikki Schreiber, aims to set the record straight in Scotland.
When I returned to Edinburgh, a liberal friend asked me where the children were going to go to school. When I said, “I like the approach at Steiner’s and I think it’ll suit my two really well”, he replied: “Steiner’s? That’s the school for lentil-eating weirdos.” But in fact there is a real diversity to the parent body, and I’ve even heard that some of them eat meat.
Then there was the time in the Traverse Theatre bar: I was introduced to a friend of a friend as “Nikki, whose kids go to Steiner’s”, only to be greeted with, “but it’s a fascist cult, isn’t it?” I haven’t noticed any ‘fascist culty types’ hanging around, but I suppose anything’s possible.
The most common misconception is that the children do anything they like, that lessons aren’t compulsory, discipline doesn’t exist and the children don’t go on to achieve their potential.
Time to put the record straight
There is absolutely no question of children not going to lessons, and I wouldn’t want to be the pupil found climbing trees when I should be in geology or physics. It’s the same as any other school; there’s an order to the day, a timetable, and not turning up for school is, well, truancy. Just like it is everywhere else. And what happens when the children are in those lessons? Well, all the same subjects are taught, but in a different way. In a Steiner way; experiential and holistic. The children start the day with their main lesson, which encompasses a number of subjects over a school year. My 11-year-old is studying geology at the moment and within that lesson he writes poetry, draws, learns the science of the subject and uses his maths and English. They’re going to the beach next week – fossil-hunting, I’m told.
If you look at a Steiner timetable it can look a little odd; I gleefully told my brother-in-law that the new subjects on my son’s timetable this year were gardening and circus skills. To which he replied, “So, let me get this straight, my children [all under eight] are going to choose between law and medicine and yours are going to be, er, gardeners or party entertainers?” The fact that neither my brother-in-law nor my son picked up immediately was that gardening means having your own plot of land at school, planning what you’re going to grow, what you can grow given the particular soil composition and the position of the land, how to bring seeds on; you get the picture. It’s biology and chemistry taught experientially and the beauty of it is the children learn by doing. They don’t equate it with hard slog, it’s just double gardening on a Wednesday morning.
And circus skills? It’s fantastic for improving coordination, balance and motor skills – children learn how to use their bodies to maximum capacity. Some may go on to be party entertainers, but I suspect the majority will go on to have good body use and look back at one of the fun ways they acquired it.
There are a few other things you’ll find on a Steiner timetable that you might not see elsewhere; French and German are taught orally from the age of seven, when the children first enter the main school, as is eurythmy, which is another way the children learn to use their bodies with precision, timing and poise. I’m deliberately not going to explain it in a Steiner way but to equate it with the more mainstream dance and physical theatre; both of my children have gained enormous confidence since taking part.
The saddest misconception has to be that the children don’t go on to fulfil their potential. One person said to me: “But they all end up at art college.” Some of them do go to art, drama and music college, but many students go on to do other things. My son has already decided he wants to be an engineer and my daughter is not sure if she’s going to be a vet, a rock star or a cleaner. She’s still working out if she can do all three.
If you look at the school website and click on this year’s exam results you might be in for a surprise – the art and modern language results are always good, that’s what people expect, but the science exam results are excellent, too; not something the school publicises enough, perhaps because they’re so focused on the means that they forget to mention that the end product can be pretty good, too.
Within this year’s class 12 (Steiner final year) there is a huge diversity in the choices of further education: one pupil is off to Edinburgh to study medicine, another to St Andrews to study geography, one to train as a pilot, two to study performing arts. Then there are those going into midwifery, charity work in Brazil, fashion and design. One of the girls I spoke to told me how both her sisters were Steiner-educated; one is brand ambassador for a hospitality chain while the other had just achieved a first-class degree and is now doing her masters in investigative journalism at Glasgow University. So you see, it’s not all basket-weaving and the dole.
Education is a journey, whichever system you choose. The Steiner journey is different – there’s a great deal of emphasis on nature and the environment as the starting point for learning, but there are a great many similarities, too, and the desired results are the same; happy, well-rounded young adults armed with the necessary qualifications to go out into the world and be whoever they really are.