We Don’t Need No Steiner Education

Pink Floyd sparked a classroom revolt but, Cassandra Jardine finds, its leader now believes firmly in the three Rs

by CASSANDRA JARDINE, Education section, The Daily Telegraph, 10-08-1997, pp 22.


WHEN David Gilmour, leader of the rock band Pink Floyd, turned to the education page of The Daily Telegraph last Wednesday, he was dismayed to read that the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship is hoping to secure state support.

“When I think of the horrific experience I had, struggling with my children’s school, I felt I had to say something,” he declared.

His four children from his first marriage attended Michael Hall in East Sussex, one of 26 Steiner schools in Britain. “I wanted them to have a less pressurised education than I had,” he says. But he became disillusioned by the Steiner approach; two years ago, he sent his children to conventional schools.

Gilmour is not an outspoken man. But his children’s education, he feels, went so badly wrong that he wanted to make his views public. He understands the irony of his situation. In 1979, Pink Floyd had a hit with Another Brick in the Wall, from the album The Wall, which featured the ringing line “We don’t need no education”. That song, which inspired rebellion in a generation of exam-weary teenagers, accorded with his feelings about his own schooling.

Gilmour was brought up in Cambridge, where his father was a senior lecturer in zoology. He was sent to the the Perse – “It was a very disciplined school which I didn’t enjoy” – then left to take A-levels at a local college, but abandoned his exams for his guitar. “I knew that if I got the A-levels, I would be expected to go to university and I wanted to be a musician,” he says.

He wanted his own children to have a more enjoyable experience, so when he and his wife separated, he fell in with her wishes and sent his children to Michael Hall. “But it soon became apparent that my children were neither happy nor learning.”

Several aspects of the Steiner system alarmed him. “Steiner believes that six to seven is the age at which to start teaching reading and writing. My son, Matthew, was frustrated by not being able to write his name at seven. When he left, aged nine, he could only just read.”

Another central plank of the philosophy is that, between the ages of eight and 14, children should remain with the same teacher for the main lesson every morning. This is designed to promote continuity and works well if child and teacher get on. If not, Gilmour says, “it can be torture”.

“The school had its good aspects, but overall, the system seemed slack. I found the children’s knowledge was very patchy, and their school reports, which consisted only of praise, gave me little idea of how they were really doing.” Since the system is non-hierarchical, with no head teacher, Gilmour felt there was no one with sufficient authority to resolve his anxieties.

So concerned did he become that he took his children to be assessed by educational psychologists. The results shocked him. Matthew, when first examined in 1994, was judged to have an average IQ of 101 but was considered to be “seriously disabled in terms of literacy acquisition, with his reading and spelling lying a full three years below his chronological age”.

Less than two years later, Matthew was retested. The educational psychologist found him to have “flourished” outside the Steiner system; his retested IQ was now 124. (Confidence can make a difference to a child’s scores on intelligence tests.)

Now 11, Matthew reads and writes fluently; more importantly, says his father, his demeanour has changed. “He often used to communicate in grunts and screeches, but now he is more outgoing.”

His three daughters, too, had fallen behind. Sarah, the youngest, was 14 when she was transferred to a conventional school. Her IQ is high, but she had to be put in a class of girls a year younger than she was, and still struggled. She has now caught up with her classmates, and, according to Gilmour, “has far more understanding of what is going on in the world, and seems much happier”.

Clare, 18, who has dyslexia, now attends a specialist college, while Alice, 21, left Michael Hall with one A-level in art. Unqualified for a British university, she is about to start college in America.

Martyn Rawson, spokesman for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, defends the Steiner approach, pointing out that pupils regularly achieve above average results in their GCSE and A-level exams. “More than half of our pupils go on to higher education,” he says. “With the ones that don’t, it’s often a conscious choice rather than a lack of the necessary qualifications.”

“With a very self-motivated child or one who needs intensive nurturing, Steiner can do a good job,” says Peter Gilchrist, one of the psychologists Gilmour consulted. “There is great emphasis on feeling and sensitivity, and on first-hand experience of nature.”

However, he feels that the rigidity of Rudolph Steiner’s 75-year-old philosophy can be problematic. “The system believes that children should take steps only when they are ready. Steiner teachers tend to assume any problems will all come right in the end and can be reluctant to acknowledge modern solutions. I once recommended that a child who had problems with motor skills should use a keyboard, but I was told that the writing had to come from within.”

Most children, he feels, thrive in a system that exerts more pressure on them.

“They need fixed boundaries. Few children are so naturally hard-working that they beg to be given more maths problems.”

Gilmour’s children from his second marriage will go to mainstream state schools. They won’t be as tough as the one that sent him into revolt – but they will teach the three Rs from the age of five.

1997 © Telegraph Group Limited
CASSANDRA JARDINE, Education: `We don’t need no Steiner education’ Pink Floyd sparked a classroom revolt but, Cassandra Jardine finds, its leader now believes firmly in the three Rs. , The Daily Telegraph, 10-08-1997, pp 22.