The location hardly suggests revolution. A few miles down a Somerset country lane, a new school opened this week. It will do so on the site of a tiny old primary school, buttressed by a couple of swiftly-erected buildings, before moving to its permanent site, currently occupied by the NHS, within two years. But the opening of the Steiner Academy Frome could one day be regarded as a seismic moment in British educational history.
Steiner Academy Frome is the first state school for generations that could be said to have brought about the closure of a private school. The Meadow School shut just after the end of the 2011/12 academic year; a number of teachers, as well as over 20 pupils, have since moved to the Steiner Academy Frome. Although it would be simplistic to say that the opening of the Steiner Academy alone caused the Meadow School to close, it was nevertheless a key factor. The promise of Steiner education being available free of charge only a few miles away encouraged parents to move their children away from a school which had long since been struggling.
As Trevor Mepham, principal of the new free school, says of Steiner education, ‘if it wasn’t different, there’d be no point having it’. He contrasts Steiner’s individualistic educational ethos with the ‘Henry Ford’ model of mass-produced schooling. Steiner education is a significantly different approach to that conventionally adopted in comprehensive schools, focusing on children’s spiritual development. Children are not taught to read until the age of seven.
Neither these educational methods, nor the free school itself, are without their controversies. But a lot of parents clearly believe that the new school is worth having. Steiner Academy Frome has justified the central tenet of its application for free school status: that sufficient demand existed. Indeed, the 134 pupils it will begin with are four more than its stated maximum capacity, because of of parents who won appeals against the local authority to be permitted to send their children there. By 2015, Steiner Academy Frome plans to accommodate 624 pupils up to the age of 16.
It is all far removed from the Meadow School’s final days. While it was not ‘failing’ in an academic sense, it suffered from an innate lack of capacity, with space for fewer than 70 pupils. Linked to this were perennial financial concerns, especially because parental contributions were based upon family income. Moreover, its location in Bruton – a remote town with a population of only 3,000 – made it impractical to convert it into a free school and expand pupil numbers.
Yet, notwithstanding all its struggles, plenty of parents thought the best aspects of the Meadow School were worth saving. Guy Marson had two children there and soon became an enthusiastic supporter of its approach. He says: ‘I hadn’t really experienced Steiner education before but it drew me in and I became an evangelist as a result of just experiencing my children enjoying it and really understanding what the educational philosophy was.’ Awareness of the Meadow School’s deep-seated problems and uncertain future led him to develop plans for a Steiner free school in Frome. The town has a population of 25,000 and is within commutable distance from Bath, making it a much more viable site for a free school than Bruton.
Marson developed a proposal for a Steiner free school in Frome, which was submitted in February 2011. In the following months, he led a vigorous marketing campaign to attract enough parents to show there was sufficient demand for such a school: ‘For about a month we had a stall in the market in Frome on market days, we letter-dropped around all of the Frome residents and basically one of the key fundamentals was to generate enough support among parents’. His cause was helped by the educational context in Frome. A teacher in the area, speaking anonymously, said: ‘Everything’s not rosy with education in Frome… We’re already leaking children out of Frome at the middle and secondary school level.’
Marson’s persistence was rewarded in October 2011, when the application was accepted. Just 11 months later, Steiner Academy Frome is on the verge of opening. As Marson says, ‘the essence of the Meadow School certainly lives on in the Frome school’ – with the crucial difference that the new free school is accessible to all, regardless of financial circumstances.
The free schools experiment could have been designed with Steiner schools in mind. Although they have traditionally been independent in this country – unlike in Europe – they are wholly atypical of most private schools, notably in their contribution-based financial model. Indeed, Mepham believes that the Steiner Academy Hereford, which made the transition from independent to academy school in 2008, ‘was almost a prototype for a free school – it was a completely different kind of academy set up for completely different reasons to the normal, orthodox ones, and so it was quite a strange beast to have in the academy programme.’ Whereas academies were typically huge entities in inner cities, the Steiner Academy Hereford was located in the countryside, and, even after expansion work, can only accommodate 334 students. Michael Gove was reportedly impressed with the Steiner Academy Hereford and with Steiner education more broadly.
But more than just illustrating the benefits of free schools for Steiner education, the Steiner Academy Frome may also have much wider consequences. Over the last 20 years, private school fees have risen at above twice the rate of inflation; independent schools have closed at a rate of one every fortnight since the economic crisis, with many other schools relying on increases in foreign students to survive. There has never been a better time to encourage parents to refrain from sending their children to private schools. Because of the perhaps irreversible damage done to the brand of comprehensive education, free schools, despite the difficulties attached to them, may provide the best way of making this happen.
Few anticipated that private schools could suffer from Michael Gove’s education experimentation – but the Steiner Academy Frome could prove to be the first such example of this occurring.