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Situated in a cul-de-sac, looking out across rolling Herefordshire countryside is a unique school offering an idyllic place for children to learn. As a state-funded Steiner school for children of all abilities, the Steiner Academy Hereford is the first of its kind in the UK.
Based on an educational model developed by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), Steiner Waldorf schools aim to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment that nurtures the whole child, giving equal attention to the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of each pupil.
An educational site since the 18th century, the school began as single roomed cottage at the gates of a church in Much Dewchurch, five miles south of the city of Hereford. In 1983 the site became home to the Hereford Waldorf School (HWS), which grew over 25 years before re-opening as an academy in September 2008. This followed extensive negotiations with government ministers and a yearlong study by the University of West England into the benefits of bringing Steiner and state education together.
Now, the academy is celebrating the completion of a £9.5m programme of new buildings, refurbishment and landscaping, marking the conclusion of its transition.
It is one of the smallest academies in England, teaching around 330 children age 3–16 and has a specialism in the countryside and natural environment. Demonstrating its intentions, the academy spent some of its start-up grant for uniforms on all-weather gear for the younger children.
“From the day they begin in the kindergarten, the children are outside in all weathers, baking, exploring, cleaning and mending,” says Trevor Mepham, principal of the academy.
In the main school the emphasis changes, but the focus on the wider environment remains with simple outdoor crafts and activities. Weekly lessons in gardening and land-work begin when the children turn 10. The school also teaches a BTEC programme in The Natural Environment, which begins at 14.
“The gesture of the whole school is concerned with respecting and sustaining the fundamental relationship between health, nutrition and learning,” explains Trevor, referring to the way Rudolf (Rudolph) Steiner saw medicine, agriculture and education as being at the foundation of wellbeing and sustainability.
Alongside the BTEC, which is equivalent to two GCSEs, the academy offers GCSEs in English, English Literature, Maths and Spanish as well as the European Portfolio Certificate (EPC), which focuses on independent learning, research and reflection. In 2010-11, 72% of pupils gained 5 GCSEs, including Maths and English, at A* to C.
The Hereford academy is one of 30 Steiner schools in the UK and Ireland and there are now more than 1,000 worldwide – from the US to China, Peru, Iceland and South Africa – with the first having opened in Germany in 1919.
For the Steiner schools movement in the UK, embracing public regulation and accountability by opening an academy had two aims: widening access to Steiner education across the social spectrum and opening a dialogue with others in the wider educational field.
“Steiner education has a contribution to make and Steiner teachers have things to learn and to offer,” says Trevor, who believes that modern life should support the full, healthy development of the child, not treat children as mini-adults or fledgling consumers.
“There is a crying need to distinguish between qualitative progress and what is described as the raising of standards,” Trevor believes. “One is discernible, the other is an inexorable demand but, in reality, often a figment of data and statistics.”
To this end, the academy focuses on the insight that children learn in different ways at different stages of their development. As a result, the formal teaching of ICT doesn’t begin at Hereford until the age of 13.
“We hear so much about the supposed benefits of speed, variety, acceleration, and earliness, but questioning certain givens of the times we live in is the task of reflective and considerate educators,” says Trevor.
With over 60 children on its waiting list, the academy’s approach appears to be gaining favour, as Sylvie Sklan, the academy’s chair of governors reveals: “The fact that the academy is considerably over-subscribed is testimony to the groundswell of parental interest in being able to choose a different kind of education.”
Changing status to a state funded school has inevitably brought about some regrets and nostalgia. The original school, HWS, was entirely funded by parents, who also carried out much of the building work alongside friends and teachers. This created “a distinct community spirit,” explains Sylvie.
However, the change has created an opportunity for more children from the locality to benefit from Steiner education and has enabled the facilities to be vastly enhanced, she says.
“With the beautifully crafted new buildings finished, the tranquillity of the old school is returning. Hopefully, this historic site of learning can lead the way for other state funded Steiner schools in more deprived parts of the country.”
Establishing a Steiner academy in London is an ongoing goal, reveals Sylvie. “In the meantime the many lessons we have learned about delivering Steiner education in a more regulated environment will make it much easier for others to follow.”
A new Steiner Academy is due to open in Frome, Somerset in September 2012.