A selling point?

I wrote a comment earlier today about how I don’t think my children were harmed by sitting tests from a relatively early age at school, and that this did not seem to be a stressful experience for them in any way.

A reader had previously commented that the way Steiner schools make much of the lack of testing, and that this is used as a selling point worked for them as an extremely attractive feature of Steiner education.

Of course Steiner schools do feature some exams later in school life – at 16, so presumably the stress only kicks in there. I could argue that exams at age 16 will be much less stressful for children who have been used to sitting exams all their school lives.

Anyway my point in this post is that it is probably not the actual sitting of the tests themselves that parents want to protect their children from – after all it is about an hour at most every few years, and infants and juniors are not fazed by this.

What parents probably see as attractive is the freedom for their child from being taught what are considered in mainstream education, as the basics of learning for the rest of their lives.

I have many times heard Steiner proponents criticise mainstream education where they believe “force-feeding “ or “spoon-feeding” , “sitting down all day” or “herding like sheep” takes place.

These myths spread among the Steiner community are a way of perpetuating the idea of Steiner education as superior in some unspecified way. In fact copying and reciting are methods widely used in Steiner schools and if this is not spoon-feeding, I don’t know what is.

As someone pointed out in a letter to Stroud Life last week, most of the “extras” advertised by Steiner schools are what the potential Steiner parents would provide anyway – country walks, home baking and art materials. These activities provided in the home will arguably be of more benefit to a child if shared with the family, and will not detract from what most people would say education is for – to provide a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding.

Steiner Waldorf exploits and plays on parents’ fears that mainstream education will somehow not be good enough for their child and that the perceived “natural” lifestyle of the schools will be better.

All parents have their own ideas about the best ways to bring up children, and although I personally do not put country walks in school time above learning to read, some clearly do.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who does, and to know whether I am right about the reasons why the lack of testing is attractive to them; if it is not the tests themselves, it must be that what the children would be tested on is not considered of value.

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6 comments

  1. Helen

    I can’t understand why a parent would not want their child to read and enjoy books from an early stage. I have memories of my son approaching me with a book (often too big for him to manage) as soon as he saw me sit on the sofa, and with a beaming face settle himself on my knee.
    Without meaning to sound sentimental, it is a pleasure, surely, to explore books with your child.
    In Steiner schools, young children are “protected” from books; those children are missing out.
    The issue of delayed reading is dealt with on the Bristol Steiner Academy website; they give Steiner’s reasons for delaying reading – spiritual reasons, because the soul needs time to incarnate in the body- but then they go on to say there are other reasons, and that delayed reading has no negative effect on later literacy. (This claim is disputed.)
    I note they do not provide evidence that it enhances literacy, and that they rely on unproven pseudoscientific ideas about why delayed reading might be a good thing.

  2. Jim

    I agree that the tests in themselves are not harmful and can be useful in assessing progress in education. The bigger risk is in the excessive emphasis on league tables and the pressure this can put on teachers to train students to pass the tests rather than to educate them more broadly.

    As an aside, isn’t it curious that Michael Gove is forever banging on about more and stricter testing whilst being prepared to grant exemptions to the likes of Steiner free schools in order to promote his privatisation agenda?

  3. Helen

    Thanks Luke, it is an interesting article.
    I’m still not quite sure exactly how the system in Scotland works though.
    I believe secondary education doesn’t start until age 12 and the highers are taken at 17. As there are no sats then the schools’ standards must be monitored by inspections and results at 17 only. The “value-added” aspect of a school’s performance is presumably not monitored.
    I can understand why some parents don’t like the idea of testing, especially if schools are putting extra pressure on children, because of them (which shouldn’t happen). This was not our experience, and if parents explain the purpose of the tests is to monitor the school, surely children will not feel pressured.
    In the article there is implicit criticism of the National Curriculum (England and Wales) and the suggestion that here in England schools do not have time for both Dickens and school trips as they do in Scotland, which is ridiculous really – of course they do. There is a description of children in a school in Scotland doing experiments in science and having discussions, as though this does not take place in England and Wales! they say they are “trying to develop higher-order thinking skills, not just to regurgitate facts,” To imply this is what takes place in schools here is unfair and untrue, in our experience.
    It’s a very similar technique to the one used by Steiner education to make their system look better.
    All Scottish degree courses last four years apparently, but this is partly because they start a year earlier than those at English Universities isn’t it?

    • lukedevlin

      I think the article is criticising Gove’s approach in England: something that most teachers, and teaching unions, in England and Wales agree with. It’s not simply a choice between Govian hyper-assessment and Steiner flakiness: as I’m suggesting, there’s another way which is mainstream in Scotland.
      Yes, you’re right about the Scottish four year degree. It’s not simply because of an earlier start, but because of the generalist educational tradition in Scotland (see Patrick Geddes) with students taking a broad range of subjects for a breadth of education, with specialisation coming later.

    • Jim

      I don’t think Scottish degree courses are started at a younger age – they just have a broader curriculum in the first two years and so most of them run for 4 years. But those with good enough school qualifications can enter at the second year and complete in 3 years. Also some of the universities issue a Masters as the first degree ( as Oxford does ) whereas in most English universities that would be a further years course. Overall it seems to be England that is out of line with most of the world by specialising so early.

      Whilst I agree that well conducted testing is not inherently bad there does seem to be a problem with schools being pressured inappropriately. So you end up with testing aimed at getting the best score for the school, not monitoring the progress of the student. Only this week there have been reports that practical experimental skills in science will not be counted towards results and therefore schools will cease to teach them. And you only have to listen to Gove to hear the call to teaching facts by rote, and the regurgitation that goes with it.

      I’ve no doubt that good teachers try to resist this pressure but with the lack of accountability and the commercialisation that goes with academies and free schools this must be much harder than it was say 5 years ago. But Steiner schools are not the answer.

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