Steiner approach under review

ABC Online, Australia/September 14, 2007

A Victorian attempt to broaden the appeal of public education by opening up a number of primary schools to the Steiner method of teaching has sparked controversy, with the system under review in two of the primary schools.

One investigation relates to literacy and numeracy standards, and the other comes after some parents complained that the spirituality implicit in the Steiner system was incompatible with secular public education.

Both of Charles Livingstone's children, Karla and Jack, have attended a Steiner stream in their public school, Footscray City Primary.

"I think they're both quite confident children and I think certainly part of that would be attributable to the Steiner influence," Mr Livingstone said.

Theirs and many others' experiences have been happy - a far cry from Ray Pereira's.

He has withdrawn both his boys from the stream and the school, citing a range of concerns that culminated with a teacher's assessment of his younger son.

"She thought his soul wasn't fully incarnated yet, which was strange thing for me to hear at a parent-teacher interview," he said.

"And then she pulled out some drawings that he'd done which showed him, I guess, looking down, like a plan view of what he was drawing.

"And she used this as evidence that his soul was hovering over the earth and looking down on the earth and so, therefore, she felt that he wasn't quite ready to move into the following year."

These are the polarised views behind the conflict besieging the school.

It is bearing the brunt of a wider debate about the place of spirituality in public schools, indeed the very nature of public education.

"It's made me sad that the division has been created by, I believe, a few people who are unhappy," said 'Fleur', another parent.

But parent Jenni Lans says that the Education Act has been ignored.

"They breach the three vital clauses which is free, secular and universal," she said.

Rosemary Gentle, executive officer of Rudolf Steiner Schools of Australia, says parents want their children to be educated in a very stable and a very supportive learning environment where they are allowed to be children and they are allowed to learn in line with their natural development.

To understand the Steiner education philosophy it is worth considering the man who inspired it all - Austrian philosopher, artist, playwright and prolific social thinker Rudolf Steiner.

In the early years of last century he founded the movement of anthroposophy. He called it a spiritual science.

"Steiner education has been in Australia for 50 years and it has served the Australian educational landscape very, very well," Ms Gentle said. Devil drawings

Seven thousand students are now currently in private Steiner schools, but now eight Victorian public schools have Steiner streams, encouraged by the state's policy that lets schools have a large say in their own curriculums.

The stream at Footscray City has been in place since 2001, but Ms Lans, the mother of a child in the mainstream, is in a fiercely critical minority.

"Well, we're hearing stories of parents coming home, their children have brought home pictures of the devil," she said.

"We have stories of parents coming home listening to their child talking about how they have been reincarnated and how they have chosen their parents.

"We've heard stories of parents saying their child has come home and said, 'You're not the boss of me, God's the boss of me'."

Ms Lans says anthroposophy is promoted through the school newsletter and while she does not call it 'religion' she says it teaches religious and spiritual practices.

"Public schools are supposed to be secular," she said. "That's an absolutely vital cornerstone of public education and you can't fiddle with it."

Mr Livingstone says he accepts there is an element of spirituality to Steiner's underlying philosophy and pedagogy.

"But that is a spirituality which is focused on understanding the relation between people in the world that they live in rather than pushing any particular religious barrow. It certainly doesn't push any doctrine," he said.

Mr Pereira says he would like the Education Department to tell him where in the guidelines reincarnation is a criteria for putting his child into another class. Under review

The Victorian Education Department's John Allman says the current independent review into Footscray City Primary will ensure the school keeps to guidelines for specialist curriculum approaches that were updated last year.

They include a requirement to obey the act that requires secular education, but doesn't supply a definition.

"Well, it's more of a common understanding about what secularism means within a government school system rather than a distinct definition," he said.

"We have people available within the department to guide that process at the local level, but you're right in terms of the act, whether it be the 1870s Act or the Act of 2006, the actual definition of secularism is broad."

One of the more controversial Steiner practices is saying morning and afternoon verses.

Ms Gentle says some verses may mention God.

"A lot of them won't mention God. There is no interpretation of God," she said.

David Millikan brings several perspectives to this.

He is a Uniting Church Minister, a recognised authority on cults and had a daughter attend what he calls a quite secularised private Steiner school.

But he says there is no place for Steiner in the public sphere.

"If you're making some sort of ritualistic address to God, then it's very difficult to say that it's not a prayer," he said.

"I don't really accept that there is a clear division between Steiner's educational teachings and his underlying philosophical religious systems."

One of Steiner's more notable features is that the first years of education are based on creative play and artistic activities, with formal reading and writing left until later.

More specifically, until adult teeth are evident, according to many Steiner advocates.

Ms Gentle says a delayed reading age is in line with many other countries.

"One thing is to distinguish between formal reading and writing, and literacy and numeracy," she said.

"We do a great deal of work with literacy and numeracy in the early years."

But Mr Millikan says sometimes children's teeth do not develop as quickly as others and as a result won't be taught how to read until they are eight or nine years old.

Before the Footscray City stream began, one Education Department report said Steiner education would appear to be the antithesis of the philosophy of the state's early years programs in terms of literacy, and that Steiner education is based on a philosophy of cocooning children from the world to develop their imagination and learn to conjure up ideas, which it said was contrary to the curriculum policy of the time.

But Mr Allman says there was further discussion, which resulted in the stream being introduced at Footscray City.

As the debate continues, it's perhaps reassuring that the attitude of at least one Steiner student is nothing out of the ordinary.

"It's just good, it's just school, really," Steiner student Karla Livingstone-Pardy said.

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