Note: This article was written by Richard House and Jonathan Swann.
The State will tell us how to teach and what results to aim for, and what the State prescribes will be bad. Its targets are the worst ones imaginable, yet it expects to get the best possible results. Today’s politics work in the direction of regimentation, and it will go even further than this in its attempts to make people conform. Human beings will be treated like puppets on strings, and this will be treated as progress in the extreme. Institutions like schools will be organised in the most arrogant and unsuitable manner.
– Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925)
When I (Richard House) was a boy at a grammar school in deepest rural Somerset, our brilliant -– and very conservative -– history teacher Dougie Faulkner, who hated socialism, used to love engaging us kids in political conversations. And now, some 50 years on, I still remember as clear as a bell what he used to say to us: “Scratch a socialist and you’ll always find a liberal,” he used to knowingly say. At the time I didn’t fully get what he meant –- but the very fact that it’s stayed with me all these years says that at some level, I knew he was saying something profound. Something to the effect that what really matters is personal and individual freedom.
Both of us have what could be regarded as libertarian political views here in the UK. We believe, with Rudolf Steiner, that the State should have nothing to do with education. Education should be in the hands of educators.
In the face of the behaviour of the English State’s school standards-enforcer, OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education), we’re beginning to think that there are times when freedom is indeed paramount -– for once the cultural right to freedom in education is lost, we’re on the slippery slope towards authoritarian indoctrination; and this is certainly a cause around which citizens across the political spectrum can unite.
OFSTED is the Enforcer-in-Chief of the Audit Culture in England -– and, not unusually, with the aid of an iron fist. It is the subject of my latest book, Pushing Back to Ofsted.
OFSTED’s high-stakes accountability regime has long been devastating professionalism within England’s schools, with teachers cowed and bullied into abject compliance. (Heart-rending examples can be found in Jeffrey and Woods’ seminal 1996 paper, “Feeling de-professsionalised.”) OFSTED’s punitive regime forces schools and teachers into complying with a centralised test- and inspection-readiness preoccupation and a narrowly proceduralist safeguarding ideology, rather than focusing on what really matters: children’s well-being, anxiety-free play, and the joy of learning. In Ofsted’s bean-counter world, politically correct, State-sanctioned standardisation is all that counts. Worse still, all that does count is what can be counted by these bean-counters (apologies to Albert Einstein).
Schools in this country, including nurseries, are being engulfed in a mental-health crisis of previously unimaginable proportions -– something that Sue Palmer and I (Richard House) sadly predicted in 2006 in our “toxic childhood” open letter printed in Britain’s Daily Telegraph -– and which immediately went viral across the globe. I think it might be worse here, but it’s coming to the United States if a centralised quasi-socialist educational system continues unabated.
This old and outmoded socialist accountability paradigm assumes that if things are firmly controlled and exhaustively measured, with metrics accurately monitoring “input” and “output,” future prosperity will result. It fails time and time again but the government continues to throw money at it. The establishment mantra that “education must serve the economy’ still dominates; and control-oriented, punishment–reward systems like OFSTED’s routinely have severe negative consequences. Neither of the authors of this article can claim to be experts on the U.S. public schools, but from what little we do know we can see a similar trend.
Wynstones Steiner School here in rural Gloucestershire, England, was required to close immediately last January, following a damning inspection report from –- you guessed it =– OFSTED. No discussion, no negotiation, no discussion with the parents of the 250 children affected –- just brutally closed, overnight.
This is a story, then, of how a small independent Steiner Waldorf school has been hammered by an increasingly meddlesome State. In our view -– and Rudolf Steiner himself argued this point endlessly a century ago –- parents should have a right to choose the education they want for their children and it should be free of State control.
Yet Britain’s meddlesome State has closed down this school because it didn’t “deliver” and obediently dance to the tune of increasingly draconian State regulations –- many of which, as I (Richard House) show in my book Pushback to Ofsted, are based on an insufferably politically correct, legalistic interpretation of so-called “safeguarding” that de-professionalises teachers, gives hapless children the message that the world is intrinsically unsafe and they always need to be protected and “made safe” –- and with everyone being infantilized by this intrusive Big Brother ideology.
As readers will see from the epigram at the start of this article, educationalist Rudolf Steiner didn’t want any interference from the State in the education sphere. For Steiner and his notion of the Threefold Social Order, it was essential that the State and the political world did not interfere in the sphere of cultural freedom in which all education should be placed. And the world’s Steiner Waldorf schools, of which there are many in the United States, are of course founded on Steiner’s innovative ideas.
Another typical comment of Steiner’s:
“It is inappropriate to work towards standardising human beings through future educational methods or school organisation.”
Here in the UK, even under a putatively “right-wing” Conservative government, the State is becoming increasingly burdensome and intrusive -– and has been doing so for many years. The reality is that State education in this country is a disaster -– and if you speak in private to professionals, academics, and citizens in the know, they’ll tell you the same. The truth is that our politicians are in complete denial about the crisis swamping our education system. Mere tinkering with the status quo will not do.
My (Richard House) new book Pushing Back to Ofsted forensically takes apart the OFSTED inspection report that was used as the pretext for the State closing the school; and the brave parents of Wynstones are taking Ofsted to Judicial Review over the devastation wrought by this unwarranted closure –- with the renowned Michael Mansfield QC taking the legal case (see https://tinyurl.com/wpell94 for details).
It is arguable that schools should be subject to periodic formal review and encouraged to improve their learning offer. In Steiner’s view, however, this should be a matter for the free cultural realm and emphatically not the responsibility of the politicized State. But as Professor Saville Kushner maintains in his (Richard House) foreword to Pushing Back to OFSTED, there are models of accountability in a number of countries that are collegial, co-operative, professionally respectful and empowering –- not punitive, disempowering and de-professionalising.
It’s now 20 years since the famous Summerhill School victory against Ofsted here in the UK –- and Wynstones’ brave parents are determined to celebrate this anniversary with another legal victory later this year. One of the reasons why OFSTED and the UK’s Department for Education get away with educational murder so often is that hardly anyone has the financial wherewithal, the courage, or the determination to carry a legal challenge right through to conclusion.
But with OFSTED coming in for increasing flak from so many directions right now, this is a key cultural moment. As professionals who care about our teachers and the milieu in which they have to deliver Freud’s aptly named “impossible profession,” in our view and that of countless others, this is a moment that we shouldn’t miss.
Pushing Back to Ofsted is available here for £10.99
A free interactive e-book version is available free here – this can be freely shared.
The book’s first published review is here.
Note that the e-book version lacks Kevin Avison’s substantial Afterword and also the index.
We ask people consulting the e-book edition to make a donation to our legal fund for the case against Ofsted.
ALL PROFITS MADE FROM THE BOOK ARE GOING TO OUR LEGAL-COSTS FUND.
Coffield, F. (2017). Will the Leopard Change Its Spots? A New Model of Inspection for Ofsted. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.
House, R. (2008). Audit Culture and play. Early Years Educator, 9 (10), February, pp. 16–18.
Jeffrey, B. & Woods, P. (1996). Feeling deprofessionalised: the social construction of emotions during an OFSTED inspection. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26 (3): 325–43.
Reclaiming Schools (2020) (in press). Ofsted beyond Repair: Alternatives for School Evaluation. Book in press.
About the authors
Richard House Ph.D., former senior university lecturer in early childhood, University of Winchester, former Steiner Kindergarten teacher, co-founder of the ‘Open EYE’ campaign (2007–11; see https://openeyecampaign.wordpress.com/), and a chartered psychologist. Author or editor of 14 books and many peer-reviewed academic papers. Correspondence: email@example.com
Jonathan Swann is a retired Waldorf teacher who has taught High School in Steiner schools in England, Ireland, Germany, the US, Australia and Iceland, a parent of four children who have attended Steiner schools and now a grandparent with five grandchildren who up until recently attended Wynstones.