A former HM prisons inspector might seem an unusual choice to head up Steiner schools, the liberal-minded movement whose aim is to provide “unhurried and creative” education. Fran Russell says in some ways she is surprised to find herself in the job. “I never imagined this is where I’d be,” she laughs. “But I feel compelled. I feel Steiner education has something important to contribute.”
Steiner schools have attracted controversy worldwide for many years, in particular around the “anthroposophy” of the movement’s founding father, Rudolf Steiner, the social reformer and clairvoyant, who died in 1925. Steiner himself had racist views – he espoused a hierarchy of races from “black to Aryan” – and at some UK schools there have been complaints about racism. He also believed that naturally overcoming illness could improve one’s “karma”, a theory linked to anti-vaccination ideas among some followers.
Russell’s appointment seems to be part of a campaign by the movement to put all this behind it and re-enter UK mainstream education, following a run of public failures. Russell, who is also a trained lawyer, has been executive director of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, which heads Steiner schools in the UK and Ireland, since September. She knows there must be change, but says she is committed to the organisation’s relaxed approach to child development.
“I think the Steiner kindergarten is the kind of start every child should have,” she says. “If the children I met in prison, who had mostly had very difficult childhood experiences, had been to kindergarten like this, a lot of the damage in their lives might have been lessened.”
The coronavirus lockdown has been a particular challenge for Steiner schools, forcing them to modernise because, traditionally, screen technology is not allowed until secondary school age. Most of the schools are providing online and video learning, while staff are using video platforms to meet. It is unprecedented, she says, but “teachers are adapting”. Of the 20 Steiner schools, 14 are open for key workers’ children and those in need.
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In another seismic modernising move, Russell has ordered a “wholesale review” of why the schools are not attracting more black and minority ethnic staff and families.
And the vaccines? That is still a personal decision for parents, she says.
Things have not been going smoothly for the fellowship. After the government permitted three Steiner state schools to open, in Bristol, Frome and Exeter, between 2012 and 2014, it handed them over to other sponsors in 2019, after the inspectorate, Ofsted, had placed them in special measures. Inspectors rated the one remaining Steiner state school, in Hereford, which opened in 2008, as “good”.
Meanwhile, the movement’s flagship private school, the Rudolf Steiner King’s Langley school in Hertfordshire, closed in 2018 after a teacher was found to have displayed “grandfatherly” behaviour – hugging children and sitting them on his knee. The following year the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, demanded a “thorough examination” into the principles of Steiner education, with her inspectorate carrying out targeted inspections of the schools and finding 77% of them to be less than good.
“There was no culture of leadership in the schools,” explains Russell. The Steiner “familial” culture is its biggest weak spot, she believes – traditionally the schools did not have a headteacher, preferring a committee-style ‘“college of teachers”.
“There is a failure to understand the risk of having such a strong community in our schools,” she says. “Teachers and parents are supposed to work together, which is positive, but there is a risk staff might not make referrals to children’s services because of friendships between the adults.”
By contrast, the private kindergarten in Greenwich, London, of which Russell was co-leader for eight years before working for three years for HM prisons, was praised by inspectors for a “strong culture of safeguarding”.
She left the kindergarten because of frustration at her inability to make changes. “I could see there were things that needed to be done and there was a lot of resistance. When I felt I’d given what I could, I left.”
As a full-time prisons inspector, Russell visited young offenders’ institutions, men and women’s prisons and immigrant detention centres. She already had an impressive track record as a prison reformer, having in 1997 authored a report on teenage girls in prison, Lost Inside, which led to the ending of adults and children being imprisoned together.
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Next her team campaigned for the Children Act, which protects children’s rights, to cover children in detention. “Our concern was children were being held in solitary confinement for long periods, in places where there was a lot of violence.” They succeeded.
By now, Russell was legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform and in 2004, she took part in a BBC Newsnight documentary revealing maltreatment at a young offender instituion in Portsmouth. “For me, uncovering that was one of the best things I ever did. All the systems in place to protect children had failed, badly.”
Russell insists that her time at the Steiner kindergarten made her a more effective prisons inspector. “When I was a lawyer, I’d read interviews, assessments and psychological profiles. But at the school I’d actually been with families and seen children develop, including children who had been adopted, or fostered, or who had behavioural difficulties. Going into the prisons, it made me a better inspector than if I’d just been a lawyer.”
In particular, her prisons work cemented her belief that the government has the wrong priorities in early years education. Early assessments such as the baseline test for reception pupils and multiplication tests, in addition to Sats, have made education in England “a bit of a tyranny”, she says.
“Increasingly I see young children in mainstream education overstressed by the drive for early literacy and teaching to the test. The government has got it wrong. The first thing is emotional security, and that’s what we’re doing at Steiner.”
The question now is whether Russell can persuade the Department for Education to once again consider the Steiner network a worthy sponsor. For her next move, she has asked for a meeting with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to put forward the Steiner case.
Currently, to her dismay, ministers still seem to be rejecting the model of delaying formal learning until the age of six: the academy trust that took over the three Steiner state academies will start literacy and numeracy at age four or five like other schools. But Russell is not giving up.
In the meantime, she is steering the group away from its egalitarian committee-style school structure. There are now only three schools that don’t have a headteacher, or “education manager”, she says. Some of the new recruits are telling appointments: Ruth Glover, the headteacher at Bristol Steiner school, was previously the head of primary assessment at Somerset council. “We must learn from our mistakes,” Russell says.
She is in talks with Sheffield Hallam and Plymouth universities to develop teacher training courses with Steiner modules, so all its teachers are qualified. The assessment framework Russell developed at Greenwich Steiner school has been rolled out across its schools since September, and has been praised by Ofsted.
But she is not going to change the creative and less pressurised Steiner ethos, she says. “Everything I know from working with children in prison is that for them to learn they have to be emotionally secure.” The movement has found a committed advocate for its case.
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