The world of “alternative schools” can often appear confusing and opaque to parents looking to provide their children with a non-traditional education. The three educational models of Steiner, Montessori and Forest Schools are often lumped together under an “alternative schools” label even though they are easily as different from one another as they are from mainstream schools. In this blog post I’ll summarise their philosophies and pick apart their key points of difference, also assessing how adequately they may prepare their students for the world of the future.
Steiner schools, also known as “Waldorf” schools, place an emphasis on the development of the individual as a free and moral person within society. Their educational ethos is opposed to mechanistic, competitive and exam-focussed learning and they are renowned for fostering natural curiosity, creativity and empathy. Steiner pupils start learning literacy later than the British mainstream curriculum, around age 6, and although Steiner schools’ exam results are not comparable with the most elite academic schools in the country, they perform well above the national average, and Steiner students are known for their individuality, resilience, versatility and creativity.
Steiner education is based on the educational philosophy of German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the founder of “Anthroposophy”. Although considered a mystical philosophy, positing the existence of an objective spirit world, Anthroposophy itself does not dominate Steiner schools’ educational ethos, other than in limited applied functions such as “Eurythmy”, a practice of associating words (and spellings) with bodily movements, and biodynamic agriculture, which both form part of Steiner schools’ curriculum.
Steiner schools also place a great emphasis on rituals and natural cycles, and as such can sometimes seem to be a world unto themselves, however, the students tend to greatly appreciate these aspects of the curriculum with schools putting on highly impressive and inclusive school productions in drama and music. Disadvantages include a lack of resources and grounds compared to larger independent schools, and an absence of team or competitive sports, which some children love.
Steiner is particularly good for those students who have a passion for nature and the arts, and for fostering empathy and self-awareness. Steiner schools are found all around the world, and, since they all follow the same curriculum, it is a practical option for those families who move from country to country frequently.
The Montessori educational philosophy was developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori in the first half of the 20th Century. It prioritises independent learning over large periods of time, students’ freedom in choosing activities from a range of options, problem-solving and the acquisition of practical skills.
Montessori schools place a greater emphasis on Science than Steiner schools, and specialise in encouraging students to devise their own experiments to prove or disprove theorems. In addition to individual exploration, Montessori schools are renowned for their tidiness, order and precision, qualities which are subconsciously instilled in the students and are quite visible in the aesthetic of Montessori classrooms, which tend to be impeccably maintained, with students moving from work-station to work-station as their project requires.
Like Steiner schools, Montessori schools do not offer much by means of competitive and group sports; unlike Steiner schools, they do not have the same culture of inclusive school productions, but they do, in general, tend to be better resourced and equipped.
Although also found all over the world, Montessori schools are less established in the UK despite performing similarly well to Steiner schools in exam results. Montessori schools are, however, extremely popular in the USA, especially in Silicon Valley and amongst other parents who value the philosophy for its entrepreneurial credentials.
Since students are supervised and guided, rather than instructed, Montessori schools are particularly good for independently minded children and those who have a curiosity in how things work, as well for fostering entrepreneurialism and determination.
Forest Schools are a relative newcomer on the scene of alternative educational models, having arrived in the UK in the 1990s from Denmark. It is currently only found in Northern Europe, North America and Australasia.
Although a less formalised educational model than either Steiner or Montessori, all Forest schools hold outdoor learning and understanding nature at the heart of their syllabi.
Forest schools are known for the physicality of their learning practices which often involve camping, lighting fires and the use of manual tools. As such, safety is taken extremely seriously and the ratio of teachers to students is unusually high.
In addition to fostering a love of nature, Forest Schools are highly concerned with children’s mental wellbeing, encouraging self-confidence and independence in their students.
Despite the name, it is not the case that all learning happens outdoors. The amount that students spend outdoors varies greatly from school to school, and aside from using the natural environment as a resource for learning, Forest Schools will typically otherwise follow the national curriculum.
With an ethos which makes use of the natural world as its classroom, Forest Schools tend to be less well equipped than other independent schools, and do not offer many extracurricular activities.
Forest Schools have seen an explosion in popularity in recent years and parents tend to report that their children are very happy there. This model of education is particularly good for those students who love the outdoors, have trouble sitting still and for those who are naturally inclined towards conservation and the study of nature and Biology.
Written by Roland Witherow, Director for Witherow Brooke