Keeping the faith – Are Steiner schools religious?

“Stop taking parents for mugs. Stop pretending that Anthroposophy is not promoted or taught in the schools, as if it were somehow unimportant. Be honest.”

meeting the child steinerAre Steiner schools religious? It’s rare to find a straightforward answer to this question and it is one the movement itself struggles with. Usually the question is answered along the lines of not adhering to any particular faith or denomination but instead cultivating a more vague form of spirituality and ‘reverence’ for nature.

The Steiner educator Eugene Schwartz was unequivocal on the place of religion:

‘I’m glad my daughter gets to speak about God every morning: that’s why I send her to a Waldorf school… I send my daughter to a Waldorf school so that she can have a religious experience. So that she learns something about reverence. So that she learns something about respecting a higher being… To deny the religious basis of Waldorf education… to satisfy public school superintendents, or a talk show host, or a newspaper reporter, is very, very wrong. And the Waldorf leadership, I would say, are waffling on this matter. I would say we are religious schools.’

But what kind of religion is he talking about? The truth is that Rudolf Steiner took Christianity as his starting point but developed his own very different interpretation of the place of Christ in the history of humanity and in his central doctrine of Anthroposophy. As a result he’s equally derided for this by both secularists and mainstream Christians.

In the Autumn 2011 edition of New View magazine, Steiner early years consultant and educator Jill Taplin, in the article ‘Reflections on some early childhood questions’, discusses two book reviews and adds her own thoughts on issues that the books raise.

The first book, ‘The Seasonal Festivals in Early Childhood: seeking the universally human’, is a compilation of articles on the important place the celebration of festivals has in Steiner education. The book makes clear that festivals celebrated at Steiner schools are Christian ones, but that the customs and practices involved in their celebration are recognisably anthroposophical. ‘Anthroposophy’, Taplin says, ‘is inseparable from the concept of evolutionary Christianity’ (i.e. that ‘the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ were essential to the survival and development of humanity and the earth’).

This is strong stuff for a movement which publicly distances itself from any particular religious creed.

The second book Taplin refers to is ‘Meeting the Child in Steiner Kindergartens: an exploration of beliefs, values and practices’ which is based on a joint research project by the University of Plymouth and the Hereford Steiner Academy. ‘Meeting the child’ refers to an acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension in Steiner education and the unusual practices this can lead to:

‘We trust the spirit within the child and we endeavour to meet and understand that spirit and its purposes… We trust that the child, given time to play uninterrupted (as part of a rhythmically structured day), will do what he needs to and learn what he needs to.’

I can’t help wondering whether this commitment to uninterrupted play can explain the frequent and widespread reports of bullying and physical violence, even in the Steiner kindergarten, that is allowed to continue and get out of hand, allegedly for the greater good of the children’s karma and spiritual development.

Parents believe they have encountered religious intolerance or even indoctrination at Steiner schools

When such problems arise, however, Taplin blames a breakdown in communication with the parents or a failure to ‘meet the child’. For parents with more conventional approaches to parenting who, for example, believe that young children do need to understand where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie, Taplin explains that:

‘The [parents’] next step is frequently to do some research online and immediately they find “Waldorf Critics” sites portraying our movement as racist, a religious cult, or, at the very least, doing and saying some very odd things. Many Waldorf critics…are former Waldorf parents. They are examples of breakdowns in communication, perhaps because through various experiences they believe that they have encountered religious intolerance or even indoctrination, or perhaps because they feel that the school has misunderstood and let their child down badly in some way.’

Taplin believes that Steiner practitioners can often ‘speak out of habit without appreciating that our listener doesn’t understand some of the phrases that we use so easily’ and notes that ‘when thoughts are clearly expressed they are more easily trusted.

Now that may be true, but I’d go further: by all means keep the faith, but stop taking parents for mugs. Stop pretending that anthroposophy is not promoted or taught in the schools, as if it were somehow unimportant. Be honest, tell us what you are really about and don’t underestimate the ability and motivation of parents to understand what’s really going on.

Mark Hayes

This an edited version of an extended piece first published on the site Steiner’s Mirror.

See the previous posts about Steiner schools on Faith Schoolers Anonymous: ‘You don’t expect a school to lie’, and ‘Supressing criticism, manufacturing support’.

Suppressing criticism, manufacturing support: the truth about the Steiner school movement continued

“Making an informed decision about these schools is further obstructed by the Steiner Waldorf movement actively suppressing attempts by parents to make their concerns public.”

Rudolf Steiner, who founded Anthroposophy and the Steiner school movement
Rudolf Steiner, who founded Anthroposophy and the Steiner school movement

A blog I wrote that was posted on this site a few weeks ago described my early encounters with the Steiner movement after I enrolled my son at one of their schools. I explained how the more experience I had of the school, the more uncomfortable I became, until one day, after a particularly troubling incident, I phoned the school to tell them that I no longer considered a Steiner education as suitable for my son. That is where I left off, but unfortunately there’s more to tell.

They tried persuading us to stay, explaining that it can take up to a year for some of the children to settle. That should have been the end of our association with Steiner Waldorf schools, but unfortunately we had bought a house near the Steiner school our son had attended and over the following four years many Steiner Waldorf families moved to the same location. Thus we unintentionally found ourselves living in a Steiner community. How my family dressed, the food we ate, how we spoke, how we moved, the type of toys our children played with, whether we watched television,  whether we had our children vaccinated, what car we drove, even the fuel we put in the car — all came under intense scrutiny.

I did try to discuss my concerns regarding Anthroposophy with some of the families, including my thoughts that some of the characteristics of the movement appeared to be cult-like. But I was told “that is what a novice would say” and that I didn’t understand. I remember one day wearing a pink dress and one of the parents stating “You’re wearing pink! You’re becoming more spiritual!”

The behaviour of some of the children (and parents) became so worrying that it forced me to look further into Anthroposophy. It was the impression they gave of superiority, particularly the euphemistic new age language they used that produced disquieting echoes of my previous studies. I remember typing a search into google “Steiner and Nazism” and discovering the research of Peter Staudenmaier, and everything profoundly fell into place. Dr. Staudenmaier had recently completed his Ph.D. at Cornell. The title of his thesis is “‘Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900 – 1945.” Any parent who is considering a Waldorf school should read Staudenmaier’s invaluable work.

We eventually moved away and I thought I had put the whole experience behind me until I was alarmed to read that the then Education Minister Michael Gove was keen to fund Steiner schools under his ‘Free Schools’ policy. Now, 6 years later, there are four state-funded Steiner academies in England. This is a travesty in itself, but without the concerted campaign that was launched to expose the truth about the movement, there would likely have been far more. The process by which those four schools were established, and the subsequent campaign opposing their establishment, merit a blog of their own.

The public should know that little or no independent research supports Steiner pedagogy; praise for Steiner schools comes predominantly from within the Anthroposophical community. The notion that Steiner’s emphasis on the delay in formal reading is in line with early years policy in many other European countries is misleading. Steiner’s instructions for delaying reading were due to his stated belief that early intellectual development hampers the child’s spiritual growth and that Waldorf teachers should await the birth of the child’s etheric body, indicated by the cutting of the adult teeth.

Steiner Waldorf schools state that Anthroposophy is not taught to the children, but this statement is disingenuous. Anthroposophy underpins every aspect of the pedagogy in Steiner schools. If I and others had known that the self-described “fastest growing education movement in the world” has given rise to a survivors group and Waldorf critics across the world, we might have been able to make an informed decision before enrolling our children.

Making an informed decision about these schools is further obstructed by the Steiner Waldorf movement actively suppressing attempts by parents to make their concerns public. A document discovered a few years ago from the Swedish Steiner Waldorf Federation states that they employ an individual to “monitor the debate” here in the UK. The individual has previously appeared on various forums including Mumsnet, the Times Educational Supplement forum, and the BBC education forum using a number of aliases including posing as a mother. He has previously used intimidating behaviour including threatening legal action unless problematic discussions of the schools were deleted. I am also told that he has published the names and locations of parents who have raised concerns, behaviour one would not normally expect from a school movement. It is a somewhat disturbing experience watching your words of support almost instantly disappear online due to the repeated misuse of litigation, especially the threat of litigation against any form of criticism.

I strongly believe that those responsible at the highest level in education have a duty towards the children involved to undertake an urgent investigation into the Steiner Waldorf school movement.


This is an edited and updated version of a piece that was first published on the Waldorf Watch website under the name ‘Coming undone: unravelling the truth about the Steiner school movement’.

‘You don’t expect a school to lie’: the truth about the Steiner school movement

“Steiner school parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends outside the Steiner movement and gradually surrounded themselves only with those who followed the Anthroposophical belief system”

2016 05 13 LW v1 SteinerThe intoxicating fragrance of beeswax and homemade bread. Small wicker baskets full of pebbles and shells. A biodynamic vegetable garden. Wooden blocks, silk play cloths, felt slippers, sheepskins, a fireplace, faceless dolls, wordless books, formless paintings…

The fetishizing of nature and the promise of an unhurried childhood can be very appealing to the educationally anxious parent looking to be green and good. I had previously read about Steiner Waldorf schools in a glowing article in a national newspaper. It described an holistic creative education based outdoors using “nature as teacher.” Intrigued, I began by taking my son to a Steiner parent and toddler group. So enchanted was I at the time, I managed to persuade my family to move 40 miles away to be near a bigger Steiner school where our son would be able to attend long-term. I remember attending the summer fair and whilst I stood in the queue to request a prospectus, a woman in front of me asked the administrator the following question: “How will the school meet the needs of my psychic daughter?” He smiled and replied “We are all psychic here.” I thought he was joking.

Once we had moved and enrolled our son, the teacher started to mention the word “Anthroposophy” and the existence of a study group for new parents. I felt foolish that I had to ask what Anthroposophy was (I had previously looked for the word in my dictionary and had not found it) and was told it was the study of human wisdom. The teacher didn’t tell me a core belief of Anthroposophy as originally conceived is the concept of reincarnation of the soul through racial hierarchies from Black to Aryan as a consequence of a person’s karma; or the classification of a child’s soul according to their physiognomy, nor was I told of the Anthroposophical movement’s history. I didn’t question further at that stage. As one parent recently observed “You don’t expect a school to lie.”

Many alarm bells rang during our time there. I remember the intense gaze of the teachers that would continue far longer than was comfortable. There was little laughter, everything was carried out in a very slow and purposeful way with a sing-song voice, the lighting of candles, the wearing of strange hats, their infatuation with wool — I recall a felting session where the teacher spoke of the special energy of the wool, declaring it had come from a biodynamic sheep. I recall the time the teacher took both my hands in hers and explaining my son had “chosen me as his mother,” on a further occasion she stated he had “chosen the school” and that children “get what they need” – ostensibly an innocent cliché until one understands its particular meaning within Anthroposophy. I also recall politely refusing a teacher’s offer, made during a parent and toddler group session, to lend me a copy of The Indigo Children and compile an astrological chart based on my son’s birth date. Another time, when a boy enacted a scene from a Spider-Man cartoon, the teacher asked his mother why he was behaving in this way. The mother explained that her son had been playing with children who lived on the same street — children who watched television and went to the cinema — the teacher replied, “It’s best to play with children from the school community.”

I noticed that some of the Steiner school parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends outside the Steiner movement and gradually surrounded themselves only with those who followed the Anthroposophical belief system. I remember being invited to various other self-development programmes including Landmark Education/Forum, Non-Violent Communication (also known as Compassionate Communication), the Amma movement, and Family Constellation workshops — programmes the school appeared to endorse with many of the Steiner teachers participating in them. I remember the school reception displaying numerous leaflets promoting homeopathy. Mention of vaccination was conspicuously absent. I remember asking many questions and being told I was “too in the head” and that I should “learn to think with my heart.” I recall parents asking the teacher’s advice regarding well-meaning grandparents buying electronic and plastic toys, both of which are frowned upon in Steiner schools. The teacher directed them to a specialist Steiner Waldorf toy catalogue. I began to think this was more about control than care.

I remember looking around the school one Saturday and seeing a group of children performing a strange dance in long robes (eurythmy) which brought to mind certain unsought images from my degree-level studies involving mid-20th century European history. When the teacher noticed we were watching, she stopped the children and stared at us indicating we were not supposed to be witnessing the children’s performance even though it was outside. I remember feeling quite unnerved at the time.

During one of the sessions we attended at the school, my son was violently pushed backwards off a play bridge. I understand this is not unusual, as it could happen in any nursery or school. However, as I sat there comforting my child, I noticed that the teacher who witnessed the incident didn’t respond in any way or acknowledge what happened. Instead, she continued to sew in silence. I sat there in utter disbelief. The act of ignoring felt more violent than the original act itself. Seeing that I was somewhat baffled and distressed by the teacher’s lack of concern, a parent later explained to me that the children were “working out their karma.” I remember questioning her as I couldn’t comprehend what she had just said. She explained that her sister was a Steiner Waldorf teacher in Germany and repeated that it was their karma — it was one child’s karma to push, and my child’s karma to be pushed. I later telephoned the school stating we didn’t think the education was suitable for our son.

An extended version of this piece was first published on the Waldorf Watch website under the name ‘Coming undone: unravelling the truth about the Steiner school movement’.