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 The Rudolf 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, 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. Montessori schools are now throughout the world and held in very high esteem.
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.”
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who began the systematic study of children’s behavior in the 1920s. And even though Piaget’s teachings have had a dramatic effect on educational theory, his focus was not on education but on the development of intelligence. Piaget described and elaborated the following basic concepts:
- All children, beginning from infancy, pass through an orderly succession of developmental stages and substages. Their current stage of development determines the way they interpret experiences, structure problems, and seek solutions.
- The infant is in the sensorimotor stage of development. He understands the world by the actions he performs. The preschool child is in the preoperational stage of development. In contrast to the infant, the preschool child recognizes that objects exist even when he does not touch them. The preschooler has developed his own system of symbols (images, props, and words) to represent objects in the real world.
- Learning takes place by the processes of assimilation and accommodation. When a child is introduced to a new phenomenon, she tries to understand it by assimilating it, or associating it with things that she already knows. As the child gains experience with the new phenomenon, her way of thinking changes, or accommodates, to take into account the characteristics of the new phenomenon. This implies that children should be introduced to new experiences that are related to experiences they have already had but that also challenge their thinking in some way.
- Children are innately curious and motivated to learn, whether or not they receive external rewards and encouragement.
Based on this system of beliefs, preschools that ascribe to the Piagetian philosophy carry out the following practices:
- The teacher is seen as a facilitator. She arranges the environment and prepares activities and experiences appropriate to the developmental level of the children in the class.
- Recognizing that the child learns by actively organizing and constructing the environment, the teacher provides real materials for the child to sort, order, and arrange.
- Concrete experiences are introduced before abstract concepts. For example, a child is given ample experience with objects floating and sinking before being taught scientific concepts such as density and displacement.
- Imaginative play is encouraged. Pretending is viewed as a way of developing a system of symbols to stand for real events and as a way of learning to take different points of view.
- The child is given many opportunities to experiment with different media, including water, sand, paint, clay, and play dough. Through manipulation, the child will make her own discoveries about the nature of reality.
- No external rewards are offered for the accomplishment of a task, and children are permitted to make choices about what they are going to do.
- Repetition of a task is encouraged, if this is what the child wants.