Some parents are not convinced of the merits of either the mainstream school system or the independent sector.
They are looking for something different that will engage their children’s creativity as well as academic abilities.
An alternative can be found in a small group of schools with radically different approaches to mainstream education. Parents who are weary of a constant emphasis on IT skills and exam results may choose to look more closely at these options.
Perhaps the most familiar name in this category is Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, playwright and artist, who founded his first school in 1919 for children of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory workers. He developed a spiritual movement called Anthroposophy, which works on the idea that children’s creative, spiritual and moral dimensions need as much attention as their intellectual ones.
Although there are only about 30 Steiner schools across the UK and Ireland, there are more than 880 worldwide and the distinctive ideology attracts parents who are keen to see their child’s creativity enhanced. The Steiner system follows its own curriculum but this does not mean children are cut off from traditional exam structures.
The curriculum caters from ages three and a half to 18. It places strong emphasis on integrating art, crafts, drama and music, with science also taught using a creative approach. It addresses what it describes as “all the multiple intelligences, including emotional literacy and kinaesthetic learning and brings into balance the attributes of the right and left hemispheres of the brain”.
Alistair Pugh is head teacher at the Edinburgh Steiner School on Spylaw Road: “If a parent is considering the happiness and well-being of a child, physically as well as mentally,” he says, “then we provide a holistic environment in which to maximise the potential in every child.
“In addition to developing analytical, logical and reasoning skills as education has always done, we also focus on the development of imagination, creativity, memory and flexible thinking skills – the so called ‘soft skills’ that are so much in demand in the 21st century.
“The curriculum is based on an in-depth understanding of the development of human nature and of how children learn at different stages in their lives – factors that have stayed relatively constant despite the rapid rate of change around us. As a result, the schools have not experienced the many radical changes that mainstream schools have undergone over the past 40 years and the approach in Steiner schools remains broadly similar to that found in the earliest schools.”
Although the Steiner School has a large nursery, children don’t move onto analytical learning until the age of six. By then, even the youngest children have developed the sense of community, commitment and motivation that Pugh explains is so crucial to the school ethos: “Though ultimately they do those same Highers as in traditional schools, and we were second-placed in Scotland for Highers this year, our approach is very different.
“Just that set of Highers isn’t necessarily enough. Confidence, self-belief, a sense of direction for yourself rather than for others are all important elements. These are confident, outgoing young people who are not suspicious of others; who mix easily across the entire age group at school and who form relationships that are solidly based.”
The school is small, with just 250 pupils and class sizes are around 20, allowing for close personal attention as required. Children are encouraged to develop their own skills and to share them with others. A strong sense of social responsibility, awareness of climate change and the importance of healthy eating are all integrated into daily life.
“Learning for young children is developed in much more subtle ways. Literacy and numeracy are being inculcated but in a less obvious way. Steiner said that play is the work of childhood. For a child to play in a structured way and to explore experiences will set down the foundations using meaningful human activities. For example, baking teaches measuring out of ingredients, how many eggs, where the eggs come from, so there is a structure built into the teaching,” says Pugh.
Maria Montessori was another education pioneer. As a doctor working with children then described as “subnormal”, she developed teaching apparatus to help children learn through movement and the development of their imagination. She started her first “Children’s House” in 1907 and spent the rest of her life developing her approach.
Scotland has a Montessori nursery school in Glasgow catering for ages two to five, and a recently established school in Edinburgh that will see children through until the end of primary school.
After a year in a church hall, the Montessori Arts School recently moved into new premises at Liberton Brae, Edinburgh. Montessori schools are not designed exclusively for special needs children, though some may find the atmosphere much more congenial than a traditional primary school.
Emma Wardell is principal of the Edinburgh school: “We have 50 nursery school children getting a grounding in being very self-directed, planning their own learning experience. Class members have work lists as individuals and group lessons, and they use materials that they manipulate as they learn. In a sense, they teach themselves because they enjoy it and they don’t wait to be told what to do.
“They are very good at working together, taking a non-competitive view that two heads are better than one, and they plan out projects on the strengths of the group so that each child can develop his or her own particular interests.”
To Wardell, the advantages are so huge and her personal enthusiasm so catching, it’s not surprising that parents are drawn: “There’s so much I could say to parents to explain why we’re better. Teachers never raise their voices but they are firm. This is the right environment for independence and self-discipline. The children do the laundry, prepare their snacks with supervision and spend a lot of time outside.
“This is education for life that takes in practical life skills alongside literature, dance, poetry and a sense of community. It’s an integrated package.”