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. This is from the Spectator…
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.