On the first day of the school year in Waldorf schools across the world, students from the oldest class in the school will present children coming from Kindergarden into Class 1 (the school’s youngest class – UK mainstream year 2) with a rose or a wild flower. This welcome to the school is symbolic and personal, and is often accompanied by a story told to the whole school by the Class 1 teacher.
In a purposeful symmetry at the end of the school year the ceremony is repeated. This time the Class 1 children present the school’s leavers with a rose, as an honouring of them as individuals, of their school journey, and as a gift for their next steps.
This act of ceremonial beauty encapsulates many aspects of Waldorf education’s potential in contributing to a wider dialogue on how non-religious ritual and rhythm can serve a school’s cultural fabric and children’s wellbeing (especially if adaptations for sensory and social diversity are fully integrated). This ceremony, however, comes on the heels of a transition from Kindergarten to main school, a point where teachers are often asked if a child is ‘school ready’ or ‘Class 1 ready.’ In Waldorf schools, this can includes a range of considerations from socialisation to an ability to think in pictures, and in all schools will address, to a greater or lesser extent, a child’s holistic development across their physical, social and cognitive selves. In some settings, this development will have been supported by the observation of a child’s sensory-motor integration. This is typically unseen by the children whilst the play, games, activities, conversations and rhythms of a kindergarten day will give teachers ample opportunity to gauge whether a child needs specific support. At a very basic level it is ‘checking the obvious’ in a child’s sensory development (see Charlotte Davis’ seminal video) in terms of integrated sound and vision and being able to ‘cross the midline’.
There is, however, an ongoing practice across a range of settings for the ‘education of children outside their chronological age group’ that has particular relevance for summer born children by holding them back a year. This has different regulatory contexts in different regions, but is often a discouraged practice. In some contexts the social and organisational infrastructure of a school is less determined by fixed year groups (such as the Reggio Emilia approach) and learning groups are distinguished more by the project or quest the children are engaged in, surrounded by a supportive environment of the community and children of other ages. But the very concept of school or class 1 readiness can in itself potentially distort our capacity to support children appropriately.
Last Wednesday (10th August 2022), the British Educational Research Association published its report on work undertaken to examine the conversations happening around Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in relationship to the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).
School readiness was the first of four principal themes that emerged from their work, and they concluded that:
“Instead of defining school readiness in terms of children preparing for nursery or school, a more urgent question emerges, one that is even more pressing in light of Covid-19: whether schools are ready for children, and can reinstate holistic care and wellbeing as central aims of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).”
“Broadened conceptualisation of ‘school readiness’ which regards it as a condition of schools as much as individual children. Regardless of the age for school entry, children will vary considerably in their social, emotional, and intellectual skills upon arrival. Conceptual and pragmatic changes need to be made therefore to the ‘offer’ from schools.”
In claiming the values of being child-centred in such a conception of school readiness, these commentators echo the calls of the celebrated Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg who summarises an alternative to the Global Educational Reform Movement that might, with a little license, be summarised as:
And now to those roses…… or wildflowers……
Within the (handbrake) ecological turn that we are seeking to make out of our current climate crisis there are a number of attitudes and mindsets that seem to be a crucial part of this precarious manoeuvre. Central though, is the interconnectedness that has shyly emerged from the haunts of mystics and is increasingly taking centre stage within our everyday conversations about science. We are connected, to everything, and as the planting of seeds and the tending to plants is perhaps one of the most powerful acts that a child can do in connecting with the world, the harvesting of those roses or wildflowers might be a crucial part of our return to school.
Paul Hougham, 16th August 2022, CC BY-NC-ND