For 3 years now a group of parents and professionals from Leeds have been working through the gruelling application process for the government's Free School funding to open a Steiner school in the city. After the failure of the first two applications, I joined the working group to lead on evidence of demand and partnership building on the third application. With advice and expertise from professionals versed in both Steiner and mainstream education, as well as a strong lead in the areas of finance, law and project management, we worked to meet and exceed the expectations of the Department for Education. But just over a week ago a letter arrived, apologetically denying our progress through to the pre-school opening stage and detailing in brief the reasons why our application had been unsuccessful.
My response to this news was wholly emotional making it inappropriate for me to discuss my understanding of the reasons why our school was denied progress.
However as a parent, I want to share with you why I am seeking an 'alternative' form of education for my children. My reasons are borne of personal experience and yet I think these experiences are far from unusual. School, for the children in my own family wasn't great. We had a bright academic who failed to fulfil their 'potential' either within academia or their preferred passions of art and drama. We had a misdiagnosed flunker, who only when released into adulthood found themselves capable of the highest academic merit and founded a successful career despite their school reports. And we had a happy child who became a bullied child who, fraught with fear and indecision, made poor social choices and became excluded. The system failed to read the emotional trauma that the progress from primary school to high school can engender. My siblings and I would all say that we had some great teachers, yet our experiences of education have left me with very little faith in the current standardised educational model. We were all, I believe, let down by a system that failed to see us as individuals, with individual passions, needs and frailties.
But it's not just my family; there is undeniably a very serious issue in education at large. I visit lots of schools and again and again I hear from teachers how they feel their students are disconnected from their education. The teachers themselves are drowning in the bureaucracy of the system and what they very often witness is a society with dangerously low aspirations. Many school age children are from families where the last two generations are out of work and have no idea how to take any level of personally responsibility for their future. When we have students disengaged from learning, what we must realise is that they are also disengaged with themselves, their future and most significantly from the society in which they are intended to contribute.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that a Steiner education would be a cure all. Our problems in education are more complicated than that, they are in fact societal problems. There are a lot of criticisms of Steiner, but I don't buy into them, nor am I so extreme as to see it as the only alternative. It is just the one that I have found that I think fosters and develops a healthy individualism in children. Whilst the term 'individualism' jars with my socialist tendencies, my belief is that when an individual sees and celebrates their own self-worth, it gives them a capacity for empathy which enables them to truly value their culture, society and environment. In his latest edition to a series of powerful talks on education Ken Robinson talks about our need for a 'human' education system, one that nurtures the development of the whole being, body, mind and soul.
One difference in successful educational 'alternatives' that Robinson highlights is that these models individualise teaching and learning; each student is allowed to develop their own way of learning, taking a route through education that suits them best. For me this is key; our perspective on the reality around us, this is what we have. It is all we have, and it is heavily dependent on how we view ourselves, inside. In an educational model that standardises, squeezes individual minds to fit a mould, our perspective on the world around us is framed by this mould. Even now, almost 20 years since I left my school classroom for the last time, it is the anxieties that I experienced about myself at school that limit me.
Well I want something different for my children. I want something different for all children. I want grass roots societal change. I want education that values learning, that is inspired by the instinctive fire in every child's being, to learn. I want a system that understands how fast we are evolving and that the souls we nurture now will dictate the future for all of us. Can an education like that be available, free, for all? Well that's the stuff that dreams are made of.