There have been few such excoriating Ofsted reports as those on Wynstones Steiner School in Gloucestershire, in 2019 and 2020. This book, in its own words, comprises mainly of a “detailed forensic analysis” of the process leading up to Ofsted’s judgements of across-the-board inadequacy – judgements which have led to closure of the school, massive disruption to the lives of children, parents and staff, an ongoing court case and – if the educational world is up to it – a similarly rigorous examination of the future of Ofsted.
The background to the book is important to remember before you launch into it. In 1988, the government marched into education’s secret garden. The National Curriculum was the vehicle it would use to dictate what would be taught in schools. Four years later, Ofsted was created to ensure it was being followed and to determine how and how well schools were doing it. From 2010, Ofsted’s conclusions about the extent to which schools complied with its guidance took on new and even higher stakes. Their judgment became critical to their survival as maintained schools within their local authority. Those that failed the Ofsted test were to be passed over to the ‘independent’ state-funded sector through adademisation orders. To independent fee-paying schools like Wynstones, Ofsted posed a threat to their very survival.
The practice of safeguarding is central to the book. According to Richard House, the Children Act of 2004 presented social workers and teachers with an impossible dilemma. His “necessary excursion on the political economy of safeguarding” in the middle section of the book investigates how risk management became a critical element in a school’s duties, essential to the neo-liberalisation of schooling. It increased centralised control and turned inspection into a procedure demanding unrealistic levels of compliance for all schools. Could Free Schools provide a way of setting up state-funded ‘Summerhills’ experimenting with different forms and different arenas of learning that could inform the wider state system? Not while safeguarding compliance is an existential problem for non-traditional education. Hence chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s request at the beginning of 2019 that the DfE “carry out a thorough examination of Steiner education”.
The assiduous reader will become bewildered by the animus displayed on both sides
Richard House’s important study summarises the foundations of Steiner thinking, but the focus of the book is his analysis of Ofsted’s view of the school’s safeguarding practices and its leadership model. You can read this as a line-by-line demolition of the inspectors’ loose language and poorly evidenced claims in their Wynstones reports. Or you could be persuaded by their belief that Steiner schooling is a danger to children and potentially to the entire education system. There is little in between here, and the assiduous reader – who should of course download and study the Ofsted reports themselves – will become bewildered by the animus displayed on both sides. Is there any chance that these two age-old views of the purpose of schooling – which could be simplistically characterised as the ‘knowledge’ arm and the ‘progressive’ arm – can be reconciled?
This book will meet the needs of a wide range of readers. If you want to know what Steiner stands for, you will find not only a sound introduction to it here but also a useful bibliography and the views of educationists, philosophers and psychotherapists. There is a thoughtful discussion of risk management. An appendix quotes a number of parents’ views of the school, recording their distress over the closure. Finally a former senior adviser to the Steiner Waldorf schools writes a brief but highly disapproving critique of Ofsted. But the book is primarily a case study of an educational debate traceable back through A.S. Neill, John Holt, HMI Edmond Holmes, Rousseau and beyond.
Steiner Waldorf schools are reinventing themselves. The new chief has committed to ensuring first-class safeguarding and clearer school leadership, while holding onto the key principles of providing emotional security and fostering creativity.
Will that be enough? Watch this space. It has implications for all state and independent schools in the country.