Sep 4, 2017

Exclusive: Top Steiner school ordered to close by Government over child safety fears

Camilla Turner, education editor
Telegraph News
September 2, 2017

Britain’s flagship Steiner school has been ordered to close amid fears over child safety, The Sunday Telegraph has learned.

The Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley had already been banned by the Department for Education (DfE) from admitting any new pupils, following a series of damning Ofsted inspections which uncovered a raft of safeguarding failings.

It comes after Denis McCarthy, a senior staff member who was also a leading figure in the UK’s Steiner school movement, was sacked from the school for gross misconduct.

“He was a senior figure in anthroposophy,” a source close to the school told The Sunday Telegraph. “He was the most powerful person in the school, he had a large following.

“The school did everything that they could to protect him: minimising or dismissing concerns, and deleting safeguarding emails."

The development raises questions about the 34 other Steiner schools in the UK and Ireland, which includes four state funded Steiner academies.

Steiner schools, which are favoured by liberally-minded middle-class parents, base their curriculum on the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, called anthroposophy.

A Steiner education emphasises child creativity and the importance of rearing “free thinking individuals”. Actor Mark Rylance sent his daughter Nataasha van Kampen, the filmaker who died in 2012, to a Steiner school in Crouch End, London.

Friends star Jennifer Aniston told Vogue magazine how the Steiner school she attended in America did not allow her to watch television, but she was allowed to go to the theatre.

The Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley charges up to £9,570-a-year in fees and is set on ten acres of grounds on the site of a 13th-century Plantagenet royal palace in Hertfordshire.

The school has issued a public apology to children and their families for “real and serious failings going back several years”, acknowledging that it failed to act on “repeated concerns raised by parents” over safeguarding.

The school was notified in July of the Secretary of State for Education’s intention to remove it from the independent schools’ register, a decision which the school is now appealing. 

The drastic move, which is only used as a last resort by ministers, follows a spate of highly critical inspections over the past 18 months.

Parental concerns about pupil welfare triggered an an emergency inspection last March by the School Inspectorate Service (SIS), which inspect private schools, after which the DfE ordered Ofsted  to take over.

Following the inspection, a school newsletter described school inspectors as “aliens” and told parents that there was much “shuffling of feet” when inspectors asked to speak to the school’s head. 

Steiner schools do not typically have a headteacher, but rather are run by a committee or group of teachers. In November Ofsted inspectors found “serious weaknesses in the school’s management of safeguarding”.

They added that “several” of the 39 formal complaints received from parents from the previous school year alone related to safeguarding.

Inspectors said that “serious allegations of a child protection nature” were already being investigated by other authorities.

In December Ofsted said the school must “urgently” addresses weaknesses in its management of safeguarding issue.

An inspection earlier this year found a series of underlying flaws. “Leaders have failed to identify that the culture of close relationships at the school puts pupils at risk,” inspectors said.

“Leaders have underplayed and misrepresented the school’s safeguarding failings to parents”. The school confirmed that one teacher, Mr McCarthy, had been dismissed in January for gross misconduct “following a series of concerns about safeguarding and SEND [special education needs and disability] provision, reluctance to follow management guidance and a breakdown of trust and confidence”.

Mr McCarthy had taught at the school for 35 years and was in charge of training teachers. He rose to the role of  “Chair of the College of Staff”, meaning he was accountable to the chair of trustees on behalf of staff, and was responsible for ensuring that the school was run in accordance with the educational principles inspired by Rudolf Steiner.

He was also a senior figure in the Steiner school movement, and had served as a  director of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, which runs all 35 Steiner schools in the UK and Ireland. 

Now he advertises his services online for "Waldorf inspired home schooling”.

Richy Thompson, director of public Affairs and policy at Humanists UK, said that  child welfare issues at other Steiner schools must  be examined.

“For years now we have been aware of concerns about inadequate safeguarding at Steiner schools, including at Kings Langley,” he said.

“We are glad that these concerns are now being taken seriously and hope that other schools similarly come under closer scrutiny.”

Georgina Halford-Hall, chief executive of Whistleblowers UK, said: "The regulators and statutory bodies involved in this matter have missed many opportunities to protect children.

"We have supported whistleblowers at this school.

"They have been confronted with the determination of an organisation to put the protection of its reputation above its safeguarding responsibilities. We welcome the long over due apology issued by the school to them.”

The school’s newly appointed Principal, Tim Byford, said in a statement on the school’s website: “The School and leadership wishes to fully and publicly apologise to those children, and their families, to whom the school failed to provide a safe and supportive learning environment.”

He added: "The new leadership of the School is putting into effect a strategy to address all of the issues identified by Ofsted and others, working closely with parents, staff and all stakeholders.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “All independent schools must meet the Independent School Standards and those that fail to do so must improve or face closure.”

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