What is a Steiner school?

Creative child at the blackboard
Steiner schools place an emphasis on preserving childhood, music and arts with an internationally recognised curriculum, but what actually takes place in the classroom?

If you’ve ever felt that children start school – and start growing up – too soon, a Steiner school could be a good fit for your child. First founded in 1919 by the philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner, these schools aim to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment, where children can discover the joy of learning.

There are 35 Steiner schools in the UK, catering for children aged three to 14 or 18. Children stay in kindergarten until the age of six, then move to the lower school until 14, and then the upper school. In contrast to most countries in Europe, Steiner schools in the UK are mostly independent with four publicly funded academies.

Steiner education explained

‘Steiner education is a holistic education, where we’re looking at the whole child, not just their intellect,’ says Tracey Lucas, a teacher at York Steiner School. ‘The curriculum aims to meet the child at their particular developmental stage, and inspires children to want to learn – we’re lighting fires, not filling vessels.’

Steiner schools place a lot of emphasis on creativity, with drawing, painting, music, movement, poetry, modelling and drama used in all subjects. They also value physical movement: every day includes eurhythmy (a form of movement similar to tai chi), and children participate in traditional games, sports, gymnastics and drama productions. Handwork such as weaving, knitting and gardening is important, too.

In kindergarten, children learn through play and hands-on activities. ‘Rather than teaching children to read and write, we’re developing their communication, physical and social skills,’ says Tracey.

Formal learning begins at six, when children join the lower school. Key subjects are taught in main lessons: a two-hour slot each morning looking at the same topic over three or four weeks. ‘They are totally immersed in that subject, which gives them a depth of understanding,’ Tracey explains. ‘It allows the slower learners time to get up to speed, while the more able children have time to get deep into the subject.’ Information is presented orally, and there are no textbooks. Children also learn at least one foreign language once they’re in the lower school.

A distinctive feature of Steiner education is that pupils have the same teacher and classmates from the ages of seven to 14. ‘It means the teacher gets to know the children really well, and there’s a big investment in making the relationship work,’ Tracey says. ‘Children tend to cooperate, rather than compete.’

There is minimal homework in the lower school, and it’s kept to limited amounts even once pupils move to the upper school. There are also no SATs or other formal tests. ‘Because the teacher knows their class so well, they know whether children are progressing and trying their best without formal assessment,’ Tracey explains. ‘We do mark their work, but we make comments in their books rather than giving a grade so they don’t feel like they’ve failed.’

Another key feature is that computers and other on-screen learning methods are not used at all until pupils reach adolescence.

Why choose Steiner?

‘Steiner schools keep childhood free from stress and strain, and they preserve family life because children don’t have the pressure of excessive homework and targets,’ says Tracey. ‘The absence of over-testing is good for children’s self-esteem and promotes a real joy of learning, and they develop good social skills as well as flexibility and adaptability. It’s also a very well-rounded education: bright children in particular often become very narrowly focused on academic subjects in state schools, but in Steiner schools, they also learn to knit and grow vegetables. There’s something for everyone.’

Steiner schools and special educational needs

Children with SEN are catered for in Steiner schools. ‘Because so much of the work is done orally, children with learning difficulties like dyslexia aren’t disadvantaged in the way they might be in other schools,’ Tracey explains. ‘Even if they can’t put much down on paper, they can access the curriculum, and children are much more able to work at their own level as the work isn’t exam-focused.’

Gifted children also do well. ‘Because the project work can be so deep and broad, they can really get their teeth into it, and extend themselves as much as they want,’ Tracey says.

What parents say

Mum of two Elena Sapsford chose to send her children to Greenwich Steiner School because she wanted them to develop through play at a natural pace. ‘The teachers give all they have in terms of energy and time to make our school a happy and successful place of love and learning,’ she says. ‘They’ve given our children a great start in life and I feel supported as a parent.’

Kaycee Fordham’s children go to South Devon Steiner School. ‘We chose it because we felt our children deserved to enjoy their childhood without the pressures put on young children in mainstream schools,’ she explains. ‘They attend a beautiful kindergarten surrounded by rolling countryside, and instead of learning to read and write they learn practical skills like whittling, cooking, sewing and finger knitting. Steiner education is helping us to protect and prolong their childhood and letting them develop at a natural pace, with time and space to explore. The only drawback is the fees, which mean we have to go without other things as a family for the sake of their education.’