A Sudden Longstanding Concern

BBC Newsnight Report on Steiner, Racism and Unchecked Bullying

To mark the release of the previously withheld Department for Education (DfE) memos concerning Steiner schools and their approval into the free school initiative, the BBC's Newsnight did a report about what was contained within them.

Robert Preston hosted the programme and Christopher Cook was in charge of the investigation. It was clear from the piece that the DfE knew about serious concerns to do with racism and unchecked bullying by staff and pupils alike within those schools, yet the DfE decided to approve them anyway on the assurance that this would not be happening in state-funded Steiner.

However we've explored through previous research of our own how these issues are actually embedded within the pedagogy (our interview with Rebecca Coleman, issues of racism at the Te Ra Waldorf School, abuse in Green Meadow Waldorf School, the closure of the Aberdeen Waldorf School and the allegations that the Rudolf Steiner Schule Aargau is a violent cult, to name a handful of recent studies), so it's hard to see how this assurance could've been made.

Christopher Cook stressed that “The Department for Education memos also reveal some important concerns about bullying. For example, it said that in 8 of the 25 private Steiner schools, there had been serious complaints about staff bullying pupils. There are also concerns about policies about stamping out bullying, and worries that this might be related to Rudolf Steiner’s teachings.

“The memos report a complaint that one parent witnessed a physical attack on their son where a teacher failed to intervene, and the teacher subsequently justified this approach by claiming that the children were ‘working out their karma'.”

No official member of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship was in the studio to discuss these issues live. Instead that duty befell the Greenwich Steiner School business manager (introduced merely as a former parent of that school on Newsnight) who has admittedly been involved with the movement for years.

When Robert asked her about the bullying aspect, “the evidence that in some schools bullying was, not just tolerated but in some senses thought of as a good thing [...]. Doesn’t that immensely worry you, as somebody who was a parent of a kid at one of these schools?”

Frances Russell was categorical: “This is total rubbish what you’re talking about now. [...] The allegations that were raised in those reports were never tested. [...] There’s absolutely no proof at all about these things…”

What a shame Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), didn’t mention the handful of cases of unchecked bullying in Steiner that have actually been tested. We ourselves know of only two but both are in the public domain; one was tested through the Employment Tribunal with the Jo Sawfoot case against the Norwich Initiative Steiner School, and the other, our own case, was tested and settled in front of the Human Rights Tribunal Director of New Zealand with the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School.

In the short time that he had, Andrew stated that, “the reason that we tried to get the documents that the DfE has had to release is precisely because we feared what they turned out to actually contain”, namely those allegations of unchecked bullying and racism.

He pointed out that “the quasi-religious pseudoscientific mystical belief system that is Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner’s work was linked directly to incidents of racism and bullying within those schools”.

Andrew also emphasised that the DfE documents “actually quote teacher training manuals for Steiner pedagogy which say many of the things which have just been said both in the report and now, about some children being destined by their karma to be victims and some to be bullied”.

It's pretty clear from this that the BHA have been concerned about the issue of unchecked bullying linked to the Steiner pedagogy for some time. But how long has that been actually?

When the BHA released their Briefing highlighting the issues they had with Steiner in January 2014, they did include worries about racism, but bullying wasn't dealt with anywhere within those 15 pages. Not one single mention of it. It was as if the matter didn't exist.

When someone asked Richy Thompson, the BHA staff member who wrote the report, why this was omitted, his response was pretty clear: “I have heard many people say that bullying is an issue in Steiner schools, although it's not something I've looked into”, and “we already had plenty of issues to go on (hopefully enough to put any sensible parent off), we did not think it was necessary to include it. We do not intend to further amend the document now that it is published.”

More recently, in July, we asked Pavan Dhaliwal, the head of public affairs who instructed Richy to write the BHA briefing, about the same matter, and she too was extremely clear; although she assured us that BHA's focus lies “within the ideology and the pedagogy” of Steiner education, she told us unchecked bullying had no place in those concerns: it's “not within our remit, we have to focus on pseudoscientific [matters] as per our policy”.

She said the BHA was not interested in seeing any evidence of bullying being linked to the pedagogy within Steiner schools and told us “if it is as serious as you're saying and if you have that evidence, then if I was you I would go to those children's charities and say "actually, did you know that this is happening and it's actually widely accepted within the Steiner movement?" And you could then have an anti-bullying charity actually do a public campaign or something.”

So does the BHA think bullying is part of Steiner's pseudoscience as Mr Copson states on Newsnight, or isn't it and not worth the BHA's time, as Ms Dhaliwal asserts?

The truly awful implication, despite the fact that unchecked bullying is the most widely reported problem by families leaving Steiner schools worldwide, is that if the DfE memos had not mentioned it, the BHA would have continued to deny its relevance, thus obfuscating its importance within Steiner pedagogy as well as its dangers for children, while being praised for exposing them. After all, that was their clearly stated position until the Newsnight interview, where they then suddenly revealed, for the first time, that not only is unchecked bullying part of the pedagogy but they've always been worried about it.

Why did the BHA dismiss this matter until now, even to the point of threatening us when we asked them about it, if it was something they've always known was part of the pedagogy?

Despite the fact that the BHA still haven't acknowledged our open letter to them, written on the 16th of July, concerning this very matter, we still believe, like they themselves assert, in transparency and polite evidential debate. As a consequence, we have contacted Mr Copson directly in the hopes that he will help clarify this, and are hoping for a response soon.


For further information, the DfE memos are now available; you can read our open letter to the BHA, and watch the Newsnight report and debate below.


Update [2 Oct 2015]: Well over a year since the publication of this article, Mr Copson nor anyone else at the BHA, has ever responded to us. We can only gather that “transparency and polite evidential debate” doesn’t apply when the spotlight it turned on the BHA.

Pavan Dhaliwal and Richy Thompson’s photos were taken from the BHA’s site.

1861-2011 : 150 years of Rudolf Steiner

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