Steiner Schools

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 pm on 14th December 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:03 pm, 14th December 2005

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3117, in the name of Mike Pringle, on the benefits of dialogue between the Steiner and mainstream education sectors. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends Steiner Schools in Scotland, including the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School, for providing education which focuses on a child's spiritual, physical and moral well-being as well as academic progress; notes the recent research publication, Steiner Schools in England, by Professor Woods of the University of West of England, which compared Steiner Schools with those in the state sector; agrees with him that "there is great potential benefit from mutual dialogue and professional interaction between Steiner and mainstream educators"; welcomes high-level dialogue between the Steiner Fellowship (the UK Steiner accreditation body), local education authorities in England and the UK Government which has led to the prospect of the United Kingdom's first publicly funded Steiner Academy in Hereford, and considers that the Scottish Executive should engage actively with local authorities in Scotland and encourage the schools to be brought within the publicly funded sector, in a similar fashion to other European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 5:10 pm, 14th December 2005

Why have I chosen this subject for a members' business debate? Because I believe that what the Steiner Waldorf schools in Scotland—in particular the school in my constituency of Edinburgh South but also those in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Forres—have to offer could have considerable benefit for public sector schools at primary and secondary level. Encouraging more financing from local government would enable the skills that Steiner schools have developed to be brought into the state schools sector. The motion calls for dialogue between Steiner schools and the state sector, but that can be done only if Steiner schools are given adequate resources.

First, I will give a few facts about Steiner schools in Scotland. There is currently a school roll of 650, although there is potential for one of 850. In line with mainstream teaching in Europe and with Liberal Democrat policy, children start formal learning at the age of six; early years are reserved for creative play. All children learn two foreign languages from the age of six. The schools are non-denominational and aim to be fully comprehensive. Pupils of all mainstream abilities are welcome; there is no entrance exam. The Steiner schools' exam results are extremely impressive—they had a pass rate at grades A to C of higher of 83 per cent in 2005.

The schools' curriculum is based on an understanding of child development. It offers a balance of artistic, practical and intellectual work for all pupils. It encourages creativity, lateral thinking, emotional intelligence and citizenship. It places emphasis on music, arts and crafts, foreign languages and learning through doing. The pupils study subjects such as philosophy, geology, astronomy and the history of architecture alongside the subjects that they are doing for their exams.

What is important is that the schools aim to be accessible to children from all financial backgrounds; however, they also need to pay teachers enough to live. Those factors are not easily reconcilable. The average Steiner teacher earns only £16,000 a year, which allows fees to be kept low at about £3,600 per annum. The policy of no state funding is making the schools' founding aim of being socially inclusive increasingly difficult. They must either struggle financially or be socially exclusive. That is not what they want.

It is important to note that Steiner schools should not be lumped in with other independent schools, which simply offer parents the choice of paying for the teaching of a curriculum similar to that of state schools. Steiner offers a whole other way of learning—and not just for those who can afford to pay.

What contribution do other countries make to Steiner schools? Denmark gives them 85 per cent funding; Sweden and Holland give them 100 per cent funding; in New Zealand, the state gives them the same per capita funding as mainstream schools; Hungary gives them full funding; and Austria gives them the same level of funding as mainstream schools.

What is happening in England? It was recently agreed that the Government will fund a Steiner school in Hereford. Discussions are going on with local authorities to work towards the funding of Steiner schools. The Westminster Government will pay 90 per cent of the running costs. That has come about as a result of ministers being impressed by the quality and creativity of the education that Steiner schools provide as well as by the dedication and enthusiasm of children, parents and teachers. That quality exists in the Scottish system and is worthy of support.

There is nothing to prevent Scottish local authorities from providing funding for Steiner schools now. They fund other types of specialist schools, such as music and Gaelic schools. Why not Steiner? After all, Steiner schools' specialism lies in their approach. It is up to the Scottish Executive to give strong direction and encouragement to local authorities to provide the necessary funding. By helping to fund Steiner education, local authorities could adopt the best practice that they see.

There are already signs of dialogue in the form of a joint discourse between the staff of the Steiner school in Edinburgh and Balgreen Primary School teachers. Teachers from the state sector chose specific Steiner subjects to study with their pupils. They agreed that, given time, the approach would raise attainment levels in computation skills—the times table—and oral literacy. It would also have a beneficial effect on children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and would raise self-esteem through enhanced creative expression. The children have become more confident and enthusiastic about their drawing and art work: for the first time in the project, children have asked if they can take their work home to show their parents. I welcome the Executive's funding of that project, but we can get more of the same only through adequate funding of the Steiner sector.

The Minister for Education and Young People is pushing his proposals for the curriculum for excellence, which reveals the extent to which the Executive is moving towards encouraging a mainstream curriculum that is along the lines that Steiner schools already work on. The proposals aim: first, to simplify and teach the curriculum so that teachers can play up to their strengths and allow more time for creativity, depth and breadth; secondly, to make the curriculum more child centred; thirdly, to emphasise the how of teaching, not just the what; and, fourthly, to ease pupils' progressions between nursery and primary school and between primary school and secondary school. Those are, and always have been, the essential foundations of Steiner schools. With their experience and expertise, Steiner schools could make—and I think they would make—a significant contribution to the curriculum for excellence.

I issue an invitation to both the Minister for Education and Young People and the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People to visit the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School so that they can see the excellent work that it is doing. Many Steiner ideas are now in the main stream. If we want more dialogue, more resources are needed now. I believe that the time has come to give Steiner in Scotland the recognition that it justly deserves.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 5:16 pm, 14th December 2005

I begin by congratulating Mike Pringle on securing the debate, which provides welcome recognition of the contribution of Steiner schools to the education of children and young people in Scotland today. Like Mike Pringle, I have visited the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School on a number of occasions. In February of last year, I was pleased to sponsor a presentation to members, which was given by members of the Scottish Association for Steiner Waldorf Education.

We are all familiar with the old joke about the visitor from abroad who asks a local the way to a particular destination, and is met with the response, "Well, I wouldn't start from here." In my opinion, "I wouldn't start from here" is almost the perfect way to describe the system of education in this country—both north and south of the border—with its rigid demarcation between state-maintained schools, which are run almost exclusively under a local authority umbrella, and private or independent schools.

We could have established the principle of universal free education funded out of taxation without devising a system that in effect nationalised or municipalised its provision. The principle applies with equal validity to our health service. We could have had a taxpayer-funded national health service without having a taxpayer-funded nationalised health service. Ironically, Steiner schools, which are firmly committed to an ethos of social inclusion, as Mike Pringle has pointed out, have been the victims of that apparently unbridgeable divide.

Moreover, the situation has got worse, not better, in recent years. There used to be a measure of financial support for Steiner schools from the Government through the assisted places scheme, which was introduced by the last Conservative Government, but which was of course abolished upon the election of its Labour successor. That was a significant blow to Steiner education. Some 40 per cent of pupils at the Edinburgh Steiner school, for example, were funded through the assisted places scheme. That means that Steiner schools are now more exclusive than they were before, because parents who are unable to pay the full fees cannot choose a Steiner education for their children no matter how much it may be in the best educational interests of their children to do so.

The Prime Minister is not a man on whose arguments I usually call in aid of my own. However, in a recent analysis of our education system in Britain as a whole, he pointed out—quite rightly in my opinion—that, for the better-off, it is full of options, whereas for those on middle or lower incomes, it is very much a matter of take or leave the local school. He said that the solution was

"to escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools. It is to break down the barriers to new providers, to schools associating with outside sponsors, to the ability to start and expand schools; and to give parental choice its proper place."

I could not agree more.

I know not whether Mr Blair, in the time left allotted to him, will achieve that ambition for schools in England, for which he is responsible, but I am quite certain that it is what we need to do for schools in Scotland. However, given its record to date, I doubt whether the Scottish Executive has either the inclination or courage to tackle the vested interests that represent the roadblocks to reform of our education system.

As Mike Pringle said, the provision of Steiner education within our maintained sector is a feature of education systems in countries across Europe. That would be a significant step forward for us here in Scotland, which I would welcome whole-heartedly as promoting diversity and choice within the system. However, I do not believe that Steiner education should be considered in narrow isolation or as a special case, like Jordanhill or a music school funded directly by the Executive. Rather, consideration of the Steiner schools should exemplify the need for a fundamental change of approach to the provision of education for all our children and young people. If the Scottish Executive is prepared to take that on board, it will have my full support.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party 5:22 pm, 14th December 2005

I will not follow David McLetchie in his interpretation of the Rev I M Jolly on the future prospects of the current Prime Minister, but I join him in congratulating Mike Pringle on bringing the subject before the Parliament. I seem to remember that previous discussions on Steiner schools have been tucked away in amendments to major education bills. We have not had the opportunity to explore many of the issues surrounding the educational facilities of our Steiner schools.

Mike Pringle said that I had a Steiner school in my constituency—the Moray Steiner school in Forres, which has a school roll of 125. I have had the pleasure of visiting it and found contented staff, who made few moans, contented children and a great deal of positive work being done. Its Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education report said:

"The school had made good progress within the constraints of the resources available to it ... The school continues to make good use of the local environment as a resource for learning in the social subjects."

It is important that the school is still making the best use of everything available, despite the constraints on resources.

We often discuss the teaching of foreign languages in our education debates. Foreign languages are taught from an early age in Steiner schools, which is a huge advantage. The ability to speak a second language on leaving school can increase an average salary by about £3,000 a year. A survey of more than 2,500 firms found that nine out of 10 thought that their business could benefit from better language skills.

We should consider many aspects of Steiner schools. In Moray, some children at the Steiner school are funded by Moray Council—such decisions are taken by the local authority. Is the minister aware of how many local authorities are engaged in funding children to go to Steiner schools? It would be useful to know that. If he cannot produce the figure tonight, he could perhaps write to me and to other members.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Does the member accept that there used to be such a system under the assisted places scheme, which has long since been abolished by Labour?

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes, but the decisions are taken by Moray Council when parents have made applications for particular reasons. The decision is, quite properly, for the education authorities, in discussion with the parents. The children are funded; their transportation costs are included. The example shows how we can bring the Steiner schools much more into the main stream.

On a day on which the so-called league tables of Scotland's schools have been published, I worry—as I do, sometimes—that we do not show enough of what happens in the Steiner school system apart from exams. They concentrate on the whole child, using the Piaget philosophy. No league table shows where barriers have been broken down by the efforts of those working in the Steiner schools or in special needs units in our mainstream schools.

I believe that, by not funding the Steiner schools, it could be argued that we are breaking the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 6 of which states that

"Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children" and that

"Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages."

Further, we might be in breach of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Has the minister checked the call for funding for our Steiner schools against that issue?

S

Steiner schools are based on Anthroposothy.
It took us nearly 4 years to find this out.Children with special needs have not been incarnated properly and a child that writes with there left hand are encouraged to write with their right hand.This has happened there and caused upset to a child.
Bullying is put down to karma and therefore it is not dealt with properly.
Bullying is rife at Moray Steiner school and supervision is very poor.Lunchtimes any one can walk around the grounds because you will hardly see a teacher outside. There is a real safety issue.
It is an independant school and when things go wrong there is nowhere to turn.If you complain then teachers ignore you and you are ostricised.

Submitted by Susan

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 5:26 pm, 14th December 2005

I am grateful to Mike Pringle for raising the important and topical subject of Steiner Waldorf schools.

Since Rudolf Steiner founded the first of his schools in Germany in 1919, the popularity of the schools has grown and there are now nearly 900 around the world. The schools give priority to educating the whole child, with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility, creativity and social awareness. Children at Steiner schools sit national exams but, alongside the main lessons and examination courses, a programme of arts, crafts and drama takes place. All of the Steiner schools in Scotland are subject to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education inspections. Their flexible approach allows for innovative teaching and a broad, engaging curriculum that reflects the range of children's interests and learning styles.

In countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, Steiner schools are publicly funded. However, the 23 schools in the United Kingdom are independent, although there is a possibility that that could change. As a result of recommendations made in the first Government-funded study of Steiner schools in England, by Professor Woods, of the University of the West of England, the UK Government is on the road to establishing publicly funded Steiner schools. The report found that there are common themes to be found in Steiner and mainstream education and that there is a potential to utilise such themes as bridges to facilitate dialogue and interaction between the Steiner and maintained sectors. Funded Steiner schools could make a significant contribution to the education debate in Scotland and could share best practice with colleagues in a meaningful way. As Mike Pringle said, the recent collaborative project between the Edinburgh Steiner school and Balgreen Primary School, which explored creativity and multisensory learning, is a worthy example of that.

We have no objection to Steiner Waldorf schools being independent. However, if they are to be brought within the state sector—assuming that that is their wish—the question that arises for the Executive is why comparable concessions are not being made to George Heriot's School and the Edinburgh Merchant Company schools, for which there is also an extremely good case.

The principle that we believe in is diversity in education. The Executive has said that it values Steiner education for the choice that it offers to parents. However, that choice is likely to be available only to parents who can afford to pay. With the honourable exceptions of Jordanhill and special schools, there is, apparently, no longer scope within the coalition's public sector education system for independently run but publicly funded schools to exist. Nonetheless, we support Government funding for public sector schools following the pupil to a school of the parents' choice, whether that be traditional, mainstream or subject specialist. Funding would pass from the Executive to schools so that all public sector schools could be independent but state funded. We believe that granting schools the flexibility to engage in collaboration with other schools will be mutually beneficial. All schools, whether they be in the state sector or the independent sector, should be free to set their own priorities.

As David McLetchie said, the Prime Minister is committed to widening diversity in education provision in the interests of raising standards and offering parents a choice of school for their child. As Winston Churchill said,

"The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity."

I urge the Executive to accept that optimism should be the hallmark of Scotland's education policy.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:30 pm, 14th December 2005

I thank Mike Pringle for securing the debate. The motion is important, because it makes the Executive and the Parliament aware that some schools in Scotland have a well-developed education philosophy that which marks them out as different from state schools.

I argue that the state system does not have the foundation of a cogent and coherent education philosophy; rather, it aims for targets and products. The purpose of Steiner schools is to develop the whole child, and that is what makes them so important. We need to examine Steiner schools to see what lessons they have for the Scottish education system. Such an examination should tell us whether we have defined our purposes correctly—and in the interests of our children—and whether our education system is fully fit for its purpose.

I do not want to run our education system down, because what we do well in schools means that we have an excellent system. We are doing things better, but we need to be doing better things, which is what Steiner schools do already. To reinforce the arguments that we have already heard about what Steiner schools offer, I will dig a little more into their education philosophy.

If passing examinations and pure knowledge could solve all our problems, we surely have enough people to solve them. But we have not solved all our problems, because we need more from our young people when they leave school. Steiner schools are about imaginative and original thinking and emotional engagement. Steiner teachers use concepts and the arts as well as human beings and nature to produce children who are emotionally responsive and sensitive. We need that.

People should leave school with a sense of purpose. If our children are going to help change the world, they need a reservoir of strength that is not hindered by some of the obstacles that schools put in their way, such as targets for passing examinations. Steiner schools educate, regularly producing the top 10 examination results, but passing examinations is not their raison d'être. Their raison d'être is the whole child, so they do well in passing examinations. Let us get those ducks in a row, in the best way.

I am happy to speak in the debate and support Mike Pringle's motion. The Green party's education policy supports everything he has said and everything Steiner stands for—diversity in schools; encouraging experimental specialist schools to flourish; enabling parents or guardians to choose to educate children themselves or where they wish. We support educational initiatives outwith traditional institutions of learning, but we support funding out of the public purse. Education should be designed to foster personal learning capacity and should give equal weight and value to the cultivation of all the intelligences—I keep mentioning Howard Gardner's nine intelligences. That is what schools should be about. They should not be just about numeracy and literacy.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 5:34 pm, 14th December 2005

I congratulate Mike Pringle on bringing a very important subject to the Parliament and thank him for giving us the opportunity to show our support for and share our thoughts about the Steiner Waldorf principles. I have met many of the parents and staff at the Steiner Waldorf school in Aberdeen and I have never heard anyone do anything other than praise its whole environment and spirit.

The first time I came across creativity being taught was early on in my studies at Manchester business school, which had an inspirational professor of creativity. He was a wonderful Welshman—Wales occasionally produces quite good people. I have attended parliamentary debates during which several members have argued that creativity can be taught, while others have said that it cannot. The children in Steiner schools are living proof that creativity can be taught. We must get across the message that that applies to children of all abilities, including those who have great difficulties.

The one-size-fits-all philosophy is a spent idea, especially in education. We should start by taking into account the assessed needs of the child and the wishes of the parents or the families concerned. Every child is different. I remember having one form master for six years. Over the years, he got to know all the foibles and traits of his pupils. He could head off problems, give encouragement or slap someone with the tawse if he thought it important to do so. He took an interest in the individual child. That message should transform all the school systems in Scotland; it should not apply just to state schools or just to independent schools.

I find it extremely annoying that people are thwarted in the sense that they must have the money to provide their child with such an education, even though they are taxpayers who have paid their share into the kitty for general education. Many people in the north-east and elsewhere—I have contacts at the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School—feel the same way. There are children in mainstream education who could benefit from going to a Steiner establishment. Teachers in Aberdeen talk about what could be learned from Steiner schools. Aberdeen City Council sends members of staff along to Steiner schools to find out how they can do things differently but, when they return, those staff members face the brick wall of the bureaucracy that runs the state system.

It is true that there must be a critical mass of children in state education, but we are not looking for the opportunity to innovate in a sensitive way or to produce people who will make themselves a force in the world. Many of the people who are educated at Steiner schools have a quiet confidence; they are not necessarily pushy but, as Robin Harper rightly said, they are accomplished, rounded individuals. I just hope that the minister realises that we must examine more carefully the opportunities for children that such an education can bring.

When I stood for Parliament in 1999, I was asked at a public meeting for my views on education. I said that every young person in Scotland should have an education or training that is appropriate to their needs. I was attacked for saying that—not by the local headmaster, who clapped, but by people who think the state knows best. State interference is the last thing with which we want to muddle up a young child. The state's role should be to provide an environment in which children can learn, develop and prosper.

When the minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will tell us a little more about what will be done to improve collaboration across the systems. We are not talking exclusively about education for children with special needs or learning difficulties; we are talking about the need to have an entirely different, holistic approach to education. I hope that the minister takes on board what many members have said this evening.

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SSP 5:38 pm, 14th December 2005

I thank Mike Pringle for securing the debate. It will come as no surprise to colleagues that my interest is in spreading good practice, finding out what Steiner schools have to offer young people and moving their methods and philosophy into mainstream schools. I have much sympathy for the motion. I believe in everyone having an equal education, so I come to the debate in a spirit of admiration and respect for the work of the Steiner schools, aspects of which I would like to be implemented in our mainstream schools.

I am interested in educating the whole child and in ensuring that every child's needs are met and their individual learning styles catered for. As has been said, one size does not fit all. Too often in our schools today, we try to fit young children into the same mould. They begin the formal curriculum at the age of five and even if their development needs have not been met, they are forced through assessments before they are ready.

Steiner schools have much to share with mainstream schools. As other members have mentioned, that has been seen in the future learning and teaching programme project that involved the Edinburgh Rudolph Steiner School and Balgreen Primary School. I am interested in Steiner schools' multi-sensory learning approach, which is the kind of approach that we should use in our mainstream schools for children who are dyslexic, dyspraxic and so on.

Steiner schools offer an education that promotes academic excellence, cultivates artistic expression and develops practical skills. They aim to develop and stimulate a love of learning and a deeper sense of social responsibility. Because Steiner schools are small, pupils receive individual attention in small classes in which they learn to work independently and to be self-motivated. All that happens in an atmosphere in which children feel safe and secure. I quote information that I got from the internet today:

"It is the task of the teacher in the Waldorf School to know what may be appropriately imparted at any given age. The curriculum, in its distribution of subject matter, forms the basis of such knowledge. It lays down no laws, but expresses the needs of child nature (and human nature) ... at any given age."

The methods that are used in Steiner Waldorf education and the philosophy behind them are surely ambitions that we should have for all our children. We need to aim for smaller class sizes, adherence to individual learning styles, learning at a pace that reflects the development of the individual, self-motivation, sense of self-worth and awareness of social responsibility. All that should take place in an environment that educates the whole child by using music, drama and physical activity at the core. Far too often, we neglect those areas in mainstream schools.

I accept that improvements have taken place in mainstream schools—I agree with Robin Harper that many good things are happening—but many areas of education are still being neglected. Not all mainstream schools have drama teachers and we do not have enough music teachers to provide the range of teaching that young people need. We do not have enough physical activity, as can be seen by the evidence of rising obesity levels in children. I think that we have much to learn from the methods that are used in the Steiner schools. I hope that, at some time in the new year, I will be able to visit the Steiner school that I have been anxious to visit for a while.

I am disappointed that no Labour member is present in the chamber for today's debate. I believe that we have much to learn from Steiner schools. Having an open mind on education and on how we teach our young people should always be key. In our debates and discussions, we should always learn from others and consider other methods.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent 5:42 pm, 14th December 2005

I congratulate Mike Pringle on securing tonight's debate on his motion which, as a past supporter of Steiner Waldorf schools, I was pleased to support.

Having visited the Steiner school in Polwarth, I know that the visitor can only be impressed at seeing the results of its teaching, which is aimed at the whole child and not just its academic senses. As everyone who is familiar with the school will realise, the Steiner school may be independent, but it is open to all and is truly comprehensive and inclusive. Indeed, the word "holistic" could have been invented for Steiner schools. The fees take account of parents' means and Steiner schools tend to understand the difficulties that some parents face in paying their children's fees.

It is unfortunate that, in this members' business debate, we have heard only one side of the argument. We have heard much support for Steiner schools but, because no members of the Labour Party—the largest party in Parliament—have turned up for the debate, we have heard no argument being put for why we should not provide for Steiner schools in the main stream. However, we know that Labour members—at both Executive and council level—have consistently resisted the opportunity of, in a sense, nationalising Steiner schools despite the fact that those schools have been crying out to become part of the mainstream system. It is difficult to believe that schools that want to be part of the system have been refused, but that is the sad but strange situation.

I quote from the most recent Convention of Scottish Local Authorities newsletter the words of Councillor the Rev Ewan Aitken, who is the COSLA education spokesperson. He said:

"In Scotland ... educational policies since devolution have aimed to strengthen decision-making at local level and to reflect the diverse nature of Scotland's communities and schools."

He continued:

"the Scottish Executive together with local government and individual schools and professional organisations, is building greater choice and opportunity for young people in the classroom."

Those are fine words, but where is the action? Labour members are not here because, wittingly or unwittingly—I am not sure which—Mike Pringle's motion reveals that in England there is the possibility of change that will allow Steiner schools to become part of the state system. That reform is not happening in Scotland, so Labour members are embarrassed and cannot even turn up to put the argument. That is a scandal.

There are ways in which the problem can be overcome. Rightly, the motion refers to a number of other countries. We can look to Denmark, for instance, where 3 per cent of schools used to be independent. By allowing state funding to go with the child to the school of parents' choice, it was possible for new schools to be created. Here is the rub: councils and the Executive fear that if Steiner schools come into the state system, they will be popular and there will be more of them. Some school buildings that are empty because schools have been closed will suddenly be taken over and will become Steiner schools. Councils and the Executive will not run those schools—they will be independently managed, but state funded. Councils and the Executive do not want that, because the Labour Party does not want to lose control. That is a shame and a disgrace.

There are other ways forward, apart from the Danish model. We could also have direct funding of schools. The Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, who will respond to the debate, knows of examples of direct funding, such as Jordanhill School. If that is good enough for Glasgow and for the Executive, why not directly fund Steiner schools in Scotland?

There is one other way forward—through local authorities. Ewan Aitken, from Edinburgh, could go to Polwarth, knock on the door of the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner school and say, "Let's talk and do a deal. We'll buy places and put Edinburgh schoolchildren into the Steiner school." The same could happen in Aberdeen and Glasgow. Councils need only to decide to do it. In closing, I suggest that when the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives win power in the City of Edinburgh Council in 2007, they make it one of their policies to make that journey together. They should take the trip to the Steiner school and say, "We're going to make you an Edinburgh city school."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:48 pm, 14th December 2005

Like other members, I congratulate Mike Pringle on securing this debate on the benefits of dialogue between Steiner schools and local authorities in Scotland. I also thank other members for their speeches. It has been a worthwhile debate, which has ranged widely across a series of philosophical and educational issues, to say nothing of party divides.

As other members did, Mike Pringle made important points about the objectives of education as a whole in Steiner schools and other forms of school. It may be helpful if I begin by defining what I understand to be the current position.

There are five Steiner schools in Scotland, which are all registered as independent schools. They are attended by about 600 to 650 pupils in total and are subject—as are other schools in the independent and state sectors—to inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education. The well-known Camphill Rudolf Steiner school near Aberdeen has recently been in the news because of other, transport-related issues; it is a special school that provides specific provision for children who have additional support needs. I will return to that point shortly.

All the Steiner schools, like other independent schools, are self-funding. As we heard in the debate, local authorities are rightly responsible for education provision in their areas. In 2005-06, they received public funding to the tune of about £4 billion for that purpose. They are entitled, if they wish to do so, to set up a Steiner school—it is not properly the role of the Scottish Executive to make that decision for them. Brian Monteith made the point that there is discretion for local authorities, perhaps with varying political approaches, to support Steiner schools.

Councils may also fund a child to attend a Steiner school if they conclude that the school best meets the child's additional support needs—we heard from Margaret Ewing about that. Parents can make a placing request for their child to be placed in the Steiner special school. That can lead to the placement's being funded if, subject to the terms of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, it can be established that the child's additional support needs would be better met. I will write to Margaret Ewing with the numbers, which I do not have to hand.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I know that the minister is intimately aware of the Jordanhill story. Jordanhill was directly funded because although local authorities could have funded the school, they chose not to. Currently, local authorities choose not to fund Steiner education. Would it not therefore be possible for the Scottish Executive to follow the Jordanhill model and take up the slack and fund Steiner schools?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

It is possible to draw too many conclusions from the Jordanhill situation, which arose for particular local reasons connected to Jordanhill College of Education, which is a different issue. The primary issue is local authorities' approach to the matter, but I will come back to some of the issues that Brian Monteith touched on.

Margaret Ewing talked about possible concern in respect of the European convention on human rights. I very much doubt whether such problems could arise in this context. As she knows, the Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights Bill is currently being considered by Parliament. It will establish an independent commissioner who might take an interest in the matter she raised.

The motion talks of the advantages of dialogue between Steiner and local authority schools. I entirely support that. Mike Pringle and others mentioned a project that is funded by the Scottish Executive through the future learning and teaching programme, which saw the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School and Balgreen Primary School in Edinburgh working together in partnership. The two schools explored how elements from the Steiner approach to learning and creativity could be integrated into a mainstream curriculum. A DVD about the project is currently being prepared and copies will be disseminated widely to interested parties, including to all directors of education in Scotland. The DVD will outline the background to that unique partnership and will illustrate some of the teaching practices that were applied during the project. We hope that that will allow authorities to see how their schools might learn from the approaches that are used in Steiner schools. The Executive has also agreed to fund a small-scale independent evaluation of the project to assess its impact, which will start early next year. We will publish the findings to let people who have an interest in the project learn more about its impact on learning and teaching.

Rosemary Byrne made a good point when she spoke about the importance of spreading good practice, which lies at the heart of the debate. Indeed, the advantages of working across the sectors are more general and I am pleased that there are many instances of good joint working between local authority schools and independent schools, including sharing of facilities, curriculum development and leadership development. It is worth noting that the cohort of independent schools in Scotland also includes 35 other independent special schools that depend on fees of various kinds, which includes placement request funding.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I have to watch my time; I am sorry about that, but this is a short debate.

I do not want to enter into the broader issues—some people were peddling particular party hobbyhorses, dare I say it, in their entirely genuine support of the Edinburgh Steiner school. It was interesting to see some of the parallels between the Conservatives' policies on funding approaches and those of Robin Harper.

I say to Mike Pringle that I have not had the opportunity to visit the Edinburgh Steiner school, but I have been to the Glasgow school and was able to examine its approach and discuss it with staff there. I also had the benefit of attending the presentation that David McLetchie made a few months back.

The Steiner approach has made a significant contribution to educational thinking over the years. The English research, which is at an early stage and is being assessed by the education authorities in England, identified particularly the early introduction of a foreign language, the child-centred approach and the emphasis on art and creativity. It might be a tribute to the Steiner schools that such issues are now being debated and acted on in the mainstream curriculum, particularly in the context of the current curriculum review, to which I hope Steiner schools will contribute. Indeed, the review has huge potential to make considerable changes in mainstream schooling. Steiner education has quite often provided a background in that respect.

We want all Scottish schools in every sector to be truly excellent, so we encourage them to consider best practice and to engage in dialogue across the sectors. We very much welcome the potential for local authority and Steiner schools to learn from each other. I am sure that the debate will have helped to encourage that, so I congratulate Mike Pringle again on securing it.

Meeting closed at 17:55.