A curriculum of seamless transitions
May 26 2020
Nicola Sturgeon has decided to use Scotland’s devolved power to take a different approach north of the border to reopening schools. Whilst the First Minister has given a date of 11th August, Boris Johnston is pressing on with plans for schools in England to begin to go back on 1st June – more than ten weeks before Scotland. One area they both agree on, however is the phased approach, prioritizing those pupils who will be transitioning from primary to secondary school in the new academic year as one of the first groups to go back to face-to-face learning
Steiner schools across the UK and worldwide take a decidedly different approach to mainstream schools when it comes to transition years. Whilst children can start Primary 1 as young as 4.5 years old in Scotland, formal learning at Edinburgh Steiner School is delayed until the child is aged 6-7 years old. Similarly, Edinburgh Steiner pupils aged 13-14 remain in the Lower School Class 8, seen as a transition year, before moving into the Upper School.
The pedagogy throughout the internationally-recognized Steiner Waldorf curriculum is guided by the age and stage of the child’s development. This educational approach, which has experienced relative consistency over the decades, has embedded in it key transitional principles that are only now being recognized for their importance in impacting on pupils’ wellbeing and education.
Overhaul to ‘disruptive’ primary to secondary move
Leading educational experts are calling for a revamp to the “disruptive” transition from primary to secondary school to reverse Scotland’s declining Higher pass rate. The Times recently reported on the “robust evidence” of a deterioration in educational performance when pupils start at secondary school, according to an international study by Dundee University commissioned by the Scottish government last year to inform the education sector. It found the transition coincides with a drop in motivation, engagement, attitude and attendance, poorer wellbeing, social and emotional health, and an increase in depression and anxiety.
Of the eight recommendations made in the report, eight are established elements of the holistic curriculum being delivered at Edinburgh Steiner School; and this approach appears to be paying dividends in the Upper School.
In contrast to Edinburgh’s other independent schools, our admissions procedure means we welcome pupils of all academic abilities. And yet, Edinburgh Steiner School ranked in the Top Ten schools in Scotland the last time SCIS schools taking Highers were included in the Sunday Times league table. Republishing their Parent Power 2020 this month following the cancellation of SQA examinations, The Sunday Times held up Glasgow’s Jordonhill – the only Scottish government grant-aided high school – as a shining example. It tops a ranking of the country’s best-performing state schools for the fifth year in a row. Jordonhill credits its seamless transition from P7 to S1 as a key element of the school’s continuing success, with 88% of pupils gaining the gold standard of 5 Highers last year.
Head, heart, hand
The School became an educational flagship with the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence owing to its cornerstone Main Lesson Programme offering pupils a broad, integrated education. The internationally-recognised Steiner Waldorf curriculum teaches the hand, heart, head, with the aim to develop the thinking activity that has the capacity to find solutions rather than only knowing facts, so that they can begin to ask questions that have never been asked before and open new findings. As the pupil reaches the critical thinking stage of child-development, the ‘transitional year’ of Class 8 focuses on equipping the pupils for this next stage in their educational careers.
Critically, a deep appreciation of the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the developing human being are considered in equal measure to the intellectual needs. This unfolds in the curriculum in a three-fold manner: through the intellectual capacities (thinking), artistic and emotional capacities (feeling), and practical skill-building capacities (willing). All subjects are linked, and each lesson integrates academic work with fine arts and practical arts, so that a child is not only intellectually engaged, but emotionally and aesthetically invested in their learning.
There is one class per age group in the School, with three Kindergartens feeding Class 1. Pupils therefore grow up with peers for up to 15 years of their lives.
Our all-through school and Early Years provision are situated on one three-acre campus that sits within a protected conservation area of Edinburgh. There is a Friday Market held at the heart of the campus each week during term time.
The learning process itself benefits from a rhythmical approach. Steiner-Waldorf differentiates between skills needing regular practice (foreign languages, music, maths, spelling etc) and the introduction of new content. The re-integrating of personal experience into a wider context is an important part of the learning.
Each year, Class 8 and Class 12 put on a school full-length play as part of the pedagogy, timetabled into that year’s curriculum.
And the celebration of seasonal festivals as a whole school strengthens a sense of continuity and community experience; as well as an awareness of the cycle of the year and an opportunity for a class to work together on a performance piece to present at the assembly. This carries on throughout a child’s school career.
Whole Class Teaching
Each day begins with a two-hour period known as Main Lesson, which continues throughout the pupil’s school career, from Class 1 – 12. As a result, irrespective of whether pupils veer towards the arts or the sciences in their exam choices, they continue to receive a valuable grounding across all subjects and come together as a whole class every morning, albeit in Classes 11 and 12, the block is slightly reduced in length to accommodate the examination subjects. A class of mixed ability children is a model for community. There is much emphasis on children learning from and with each other, learning to appreciate gifts and understand limitations. The cultivation of such social awareness, empathy and the daily experience of individual and group problems being tackled constructively helps prepare pupils for life.
The Class teacher, who ideally stays with a class for the Lower School years (from age 6 – 13), provides a haven of stability and continuity over many years of development, which is extremely rare in other schools. Their commitment, unique level of trust and confidence that has time to build, and close relationship with the parents in our rapidly changing allows the teacher to gain a deep understanding of the strengths and needs of each child. Their increasing maturity means students are now ready to exchange the security of Lower School and their Class Teacher’s ‘parental’ role for a more collegiate approach with their Guardian. The Class Guardians support the social and educational development of the whole class
When pupils join the school they are assigned a buddy from their class, while additional classes are offered to enable them to reach the same level as their peer group. This is particularly important for pupils who join midway through the school and who have not had the opportunity to study Modern Languages previously.
A unique aspect of the Steiner curriculum is the integration of the arts into all academic disciplines throughout the education. This encourages the pupils’ emotional engagement with their learning, as well as develops their imagination and freedom of thinking, and instills aesthetic appreciation; and continues on through the Upper School years.
Learning to bake using organic ingredients starts in our Toddler Group and continues through our Kindergarten, Lower School and Upper School. Our school is a rare example of school which emphasises sustainability and the belief in self reliance. Uniquely, it is Classes 8 – 12 at the school who prepare the school meals, bridging the Lower and Upper School.
Pupils from both the Lower and Upper School can join the Environmental Action Group and School Council. After-school clubs such as basketball and computer coding are open to mixed Classes from Class 8 upwards; whilst others are better suited to Class 7 – 8, helping the cohesion of the Classes coming up the rear. As a small school, with a roll of up to 360 pupils in the School, it is typical to see pupils from different classes socializing at break and lunch times – which are at the same time for both the Lower and Upper School.
Pupils, teachers and parents actively take care of the campus. Their place in the School is given importance, each pupil given a desk with storage for their school materials and coat peg – a place they can call their own. The whole school community work in collaboration to put on the annual Christmas Market. As an all-through school, older and younger siblings can attend together. Teachers know the children by name, and visa versa. The Student Council provides a platform for a pupil’s voice to be heard.
The Transition Year
Class 8, during which the pupils pass their fourteenth birthday, signals the end of the class teacher period. A theatrical production is a cornerstone element of the curriculum for transitioning pupils, both from the Lower School to the Upper School, and the final transition within a school education – that of the final year to leaving the School gates to further education, travel or work. Drama is a medium that can empower children on an individual level as well as encourage greater social cohesion as a class. It also provides a creative balance to the academic work going on – in Class 8 with the pupils undertaking a year-long independent Integrated Education project (equivalent to a GCSE) and in Class 12 – the year of Higher SQA exams.
Two modern languages – French and German – are on a pupils timetable from the beginning of formal learning in Class 1. This culminates in the Class 8 Exchange when up to six weeks are spent visiting a Steiner school in a German or French speaking country. In Class 9-10 all pupils are encouraged to take French, German, English and Mathematics at exam level, resulting in much of the Class remaining together during their next two years of study.
- Develop a sense of school belonging
- Support the formation of strong peer networks
- Familiarisation with new peers and teachers
- Continuity of pedagogical approach
- Make efforts to reduce the differences between primary and secondary
- Curriculum and teachers’ pedagogical approach to encourage problem-based learning and learning of emotional and social skills.
- Positive discourse around experiences and outcomes of primary-secondary transitions
- Parents involved as equal partners in transition planning and preparation.