Some years ago I ran a vision-building workshop for a Steiner school. To help me, I invited a very experienced businessman and friend, Mick Crews, not only because of his track record in similar workshops for big companies but also because he liked what he had already heard of Steiner Waldorf schools. As part of our preparations, I explained to Mick the ways in which the school sought to manage itself through the college of teachers system. He listened very carefully and then he said: “It strikes me that, for your system to work, it requires a degree of personal integrity in the staff that you don’t find in any other walk of life”.
Steiner schools are trying to work with a model of self-governance as laid down by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, in which there was no head teacher and in which each teacher took a measure of responsibility for the running of the school, above and beyond their normal teaching duties. Why did Steiner advocate this system, which the schools have tried to implement ever since?
Those of us who have struggled with the challenges of running the school in the college of teachers system have always told ourselves that Steiner gave this daunting task to the schools as a kind of necessary preparation for working in a way that will increasingly come to the fore as humanity develops, that is in a non-hierarchical, consensual system that gets away from top-down, centrally-driven thinking and decision making. There’s no denying that it does have some real advantages:
- The sense that teachers have (or are more likely to have) of professional autonomy and of shared collective responsibility for the children and the school
- The willingness that teachers have (or should have) to take a larger view of their role beyond their immediate job description
- The opportunity that teachers have not only to meet and discuss anything related to teaching, curriculum and the pupils but also to share their experiences, take initiatives and learn from one another
Out of these conditions arise several benefits for the school and the pupils, which would otherwise be far less likely to exist. They include:
- Better relationships between teachers and pupils than seems to be the case in many other schools
- Pupils, who because of the Waldorf curriculum running alongside the examination courses, tend to be well-rounded and “interesting” individuals
- A tangible quality of warmth about the education that makes for a supportive and encouraging atmosphere within the school
- Teachers able to work as true professionals rather than classroom managers
However, if not handled well by all concerned, the college of teachers system can also display some more difficult aspects:
- a management approach in which everybody has nominal responsibility but only a few take active responsibility
- lack of time, and lack of expertise in complex areas such as employment law
- lack of individual accountability
- lack of clarity in the role of College (is it the spiritual heart-organ of the school, a permanent teacher training academy, a school management body, or all of these and more?)
The effect of these difficulties can sometimes lead to:
- slowness in coming to decisions
- poor communications with other parts of the school community, eg lack of clarity for parents about whom they should approach when faced with a problem
- poor communications with teachers who are not on College
- weakness in overall pedagogical management and inadequate self-management by some teachers
- inherent risk of conflict of interest when teachers set their own standards
- slowness in responding to difficult situations which then become crises
- slow and sometimes inappropriate or inadequate responses to the outside world’s demands;
- occasional failures to deal effectively and quickly with under-performance of teachers or difficulties within classes
- problems in keeping up to date with advances in teaching practice, with legislation and with what is going on in other parts of the educational world
- inadequate pastoral care for staff
There are additional complexities in running a Steiner school which do not apply to other schooling systems, and these are to do with the way in which Steiner’s teaching encompassed not only his method of education but also its spiritual basis in anthroposophy and its socio-economic basis in “threefolding”. For reasons of concision, these complexities are not dealt with here, although perhaps I will return to them in a future posting.
In a system so dependent on the astonishing insights of one man who died in 1925, the schools movement is now, to use a phrase originated by Steve Sagarin of Great Barrington Waldorf School, like a restaurant without a chef. Sagarin asks: “How can Waldorf schools address this absence? There is no single right or appropriate model. Democratic or aristocratic, consensus decision-making or mandates, it doesn’t matter. Each school community must solve this conundrum for itself.”
A former mentor and a good friend of mine, Helen Weatherhead, a very experienced Steiner class teacher, has said to me: “It doesn’t matter which system you have in place – what really decides whether a school works well or not is the constellation of people within the staff of that school”. And of course, that’s absolutely right – well-motivated people of good will, aligned around a single purpose, will make the best of any system of school management. Here we come back to the point Mick Crews made about the required degree of personal integrity, which in my experience is only sometimes higher in Steiner schools than that found in other walks of life. But perhaps it’s because Steiner schools aspire to such high ideals, and because parents invest so much belief and hope in the education, that when things go wrong or are badly handled by the school, the disillusion and anger expressed by these parents can be overwhelming.
If one reads the Conferenzen, (the record of the teachers’ meetings with Steiner at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart), it is clear that up until he became seriously ill in late 1924, Steiner and the teachers continued to evolve the management system in the light of difficulties that were experienced. At no point did they arrive at a definitive system and, indeed, it is ironic that up until his final illness, Steiner continued to act as a kind of visiting headmaster to whose views every one deferred.
Nearly a century after Steiner’s death we have vastly different educational and political circumstances to deal with. To mention only the most obvious, teachers’ workloads have increased, external regulations and inspections have multiplied, employment law, health and safety regulations and child protection legislation have made running a school a truly complex operation; and everyone working in a school wants to maintain a healthy work/life balance rather than spend many evenings and weekends in teachers’ meetings.
Despite all of this, most Steiner schools have persisted with the college of teachers system or variants, although it doesn’t work well in terms of managing the school in today’s circumstances. The independent Steiner schools, which have so many excellent qualities, are usually not at their best either in customer care or quality control and they are perhaps twenty or thirty years behind in their attitudes to these concepts when compared with what is happening in the other parts of the schools’ sector in the UK.
I except from this the newly founded Steiner academies, which are publicly funded and required to maintain more stringent governance than is usually the case in the independent schools. The UK government has made it a condition that there should be a principal in each of these schools who is personally accountable to them for the running of the school. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what sort of modus vivendi will evolve between the principal and the college of teachers (where there is one) in these Steiner academy schools.
The leadership and management roles of the council of trustees should also not be forgotten. Indeed, the idea that Steiner schools are run by the faculty through the college of teachers is only partially correct. It would be more accurate to say that, under current charity law, the council of trustees is responsible for everything that happens within the school and that they devolve certain of their responsibilities to the college of teachers. At the school with which I am most familiar, the trustees reserve to themselves decisions about financial, legal and regulatory matters, while devolving responsibility for all pedagogical matters to College.
I have myself been a trustee at a much smaller Steiner school of more recent creation, and it has very different problems and issues from the larger and longer-established schools. For a time, its trustees, who were mainly parents at the school, had to micro-manage everything and there was no college of teachers, although there were regular faculty meetings. The school is now moving towards a system in which the school management team (on which faculty, trustees and administration are represented) assumes more and more functions devolved from the trustees. Another Steiner school of which I’m aware has done away completely with its college of teachers and replaced it by a system of mandates and teacher-meetings. Several schools have appointed education facilitators (full-time educational administrators) whose role it is to deal with those many aspects of running a school that the teachers do not have time for in their College meetings. The Steiner Academy Hereford, the first of the new publicly-funded Steiner schools, appointed a principal and deputy principal to work alongside the college of teachers, and this is a pattern that may be repeated in schools that are currently seeking to become academies under the government’s “free schools” initiative. All of these examples serve to illustrate Sagarin’s point that each school must work out its own solutions according to its own unique situation.
This ‘unique situation’ or the exceptional autonomy of each Steiner school is also both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength inasmuch as autonomy allows each school to develop its own character and culture to the maximum. It’s also a weakness because a wide range of autonomous individual schools makes coordinated responses to movement-wide problems very difficult. This lack of centralised authority makes it almost impossible to fix problems that individual schools have been unable to solve for themselves.
A recent conversation with Christopher Clouder has led me to question whether we might not in any case have misunderstood how Steiner’s indications for school management came about. Christopher said that he had been looking through some of the books in Steiner’s library, which is stored at the Goetheanum in Dornach. While turning the pages of a book on educational reform written by someone called Kirschlager, Christopher noticed some passages which had been heavily underscored by Steiner. They contained the same thoughts with which we are familiar in any discussion of leadership in Steiner schools: there should be no head master, the school should not be dictated to by the state, the school should be a republican academy. If these ideas were current in educational circles in Germany in the 1920s, is it possible that Steiner, rather than bringing a vital concept for the development of humanity in the future from his vast spiritual insight, was simply aligning himself with the advanced educational thinking of his time? If this really is the case, then we can surely now free ourselves from the letter of what was done in Stuttgart all those years ago and concentrate instead on translating the essence of Steiner’s intentions into the very different circumstances of today.
How easy it would be if Steiner was still around to tell us how to do things in the very changed circumstances of the 21st century! What wouldn’t we give to be able to ask Steiner for more information, for greater detail, on a whole host of issues? But we can’t – and so it is necessary for the movement to have the courage to adapt and move on in response to the needs of our times. As Steiner said to Margarita Woloschin: “One is never ready for a task, one evolves into it.”