The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools

Two sad little messages from Steiner free school applicants have just been posted:

From North Devon:

“As you may be aware, the next round of Free School applications is in October 2014. Unfortunately all recent applications for Steiner Academies have been turned down by the Department of Education. The feeling is that they are trying to establish how the Steiner education system can progress within their guidelines.

It has therefore been decided that it would be best to wait until after the general election in 2015 before considering another application.

We know that this will leave many disappointed parents and children, not to mention the hard working support team who helped with the initial application and events, but hopefully next year will enable us to move forward. We would like to thank all of you for your kind support.”

And from Leeds:

“After a couple of very trying months, the team has decided to withdraw its application for a new Steiner School in Leeds. The main reason for this decision was our inability to recruit the kind of outstanding leader which the Department of Education and the New Schools Network wanted us to have. We were also concerned by the lack of alternative schools which have been successful in the last application round- the window for alternatives to receive state funding seems to have closed.

It is with a heavy heart over many years of hard work, effort, hopes and commitment that we’d like to say thank you for your support. We understand that this decision must be as disappointing to you as it is to us.”

I don’t know much about the background to these stories, though it is rumoured that Lord Nash, the schools minister in the Department for Education with responsibility for the free schools programme, is not keen to let through any more Steiner academies. What I do know is that Steiner Waldorf education in the UK is in a difficult phase, much of it due to our slowness to evolve our practices and professionalism.   The main reason for this is that the private schools are unable to improve themselves sufficiently because of the weaknesses of leadership and management inherent in the college of teachers system.

The message from Leeds quoted above is indicative that the independent Steiner schools’ movement in the UK is not producing sufficient numbers of people with the leadership or management experience (or perhaps the motivation) necessary to take on the role of principal in the new academy schools. The latest free school to be approved, Steiner Academy Bristol, has appointed a teacher from a non-Waldorf background as principal.

But it’s not just the new publicly-funded academies which are affected by these weaknesses – the recent closures of the Steiner schools in Aberdeen and Glasgow were ultimately caused by inadequacies in the management of those schools.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people within the independent schools who could become principals – I know some highly capable individuals, some of them leading quite unhappy and frustrated lives because of their inability to express fully their leadership talents within the college of teachers system to which they are so committed.

Nor, from what I gather, is the situation much better in the USA. A well-placed correspondent has written: “Our North American Waldorf schools, with a few notable exceptions, are not very well led. Few are even moderately successful at the institutional level. The root cause of this is cultural and it exists movement-wide. But it more or less guarantees that we will continue to alienate families by the hundreds across the country year after year, because lack of effective leadership means that real problems are not addressed effectively or in a timely manner. For all of our strengths as a movement we will have to do a lot better at managing operations if we are going to significantly reduce the number of legitimate complaints about individual schools.”

A powerful expression of such parental alienation has recently appeared in this Open Letter to Waldorf Educators.

My own feeling, which I have come to with reluctance as someone who has worked in an independent school and loves the education and its many strengths and wonderful qualities, is that the future of Steiner Waldorf education in this country will be safeguarded mainly by the state-funded academy schools, in which a principal works alongside the college. The Steiner academies are doing very good work, as is shown in the Ofsted reports for the Hereford and Frome schools; they are heavily over-subscribed and they have widespread parental support.

The roots of our present difficulties are manifold and I will be writing about them in my next posting. The independent Steiner schools struggle against great odds and yet most of them continue to achieve wonderful outcomes for their pupils and parents. What I wish to express right now is that Steiner Waldorf educators are working with the name of Rudolf Steiner, who was in my view a great initiate and one of the most remarkable human beings of the 20th or indeed any century. For us to provide anything in Steiner’s name that is less than consistently good is in a way a kind of betrayal – and this to me is unacceptable.

2 Comments

Filed under Free Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools

2 responses to “The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools

  1. Interesting article as is your suggestion to have a principal sitting alongside College. It is to be remembered that not all academies have a College and at the moment at least 3 independent Steiner schools don’t have a College I believe. To quote one of the academy principals: “We regard College as an attitude; not a meeting….”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting perspective Jeremy. I do think that any school should be judged on how well it handles the inevitable problems, as much as it is judged on its positive success. The existence of written policies ticks a box at inspection time, but nothing makes up for effective and proactive management. As the correspondent from North America makes clear, this seems to be a problem for Steiner Waldorf schools generally.

    I think that the common lack of effective leadership stems from the collegiate management structure which originated with Steiner himself and the first Waldorf school, of course. I also suggest that the movements rigidity in this respect stems from the kind of unquestioning adulation for Steiner many share, as in your final paragraph.

    Having said that, I have the impression that the mandate system used in many Steiner schools was an attempt to evolve from the fully collegiate approach, though I’ve seen little evidence that it has made much difference.

    Does the SWSF still have an oversight role in the UK? Can grievances not satisfactorily resolved at school level still be taken there? If not, what role does it now have?

    Like

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