VICKI HILL looks back at the incredible story of York's Steiner School which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year

A PIONEERING York school built largely by parents and starting with a rent of just £5 is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

"It inspires me to think what has been achieved with hardly a penny in the bank, just the power of an ideal and a group of passionate people," says Michael Rose, one of the founder members behind the development of York Steiner School - now a thriving modern school in Fulford.

With around 250 children in baby, parent and child groups, three kindergartens and eight main school classes, the school attracts highly qualified teachers and language and music specialists from around the world and hosts the Steiner NESTT (North of England Steiner Teacher Training) courses.

York Press: The former Danesmead School, now York's Steiner SchoolThe former Danesmead School, now York's Steiner School

It is fully equipped with a gym, libraries, halls, music rooms and a café all set in landscaped gardens and its children go on to achieve great success both academically and in the world of business, science and the creative arts.

It’s come a very long way from humble beginnings in a house on the outskirts of Malton back in 1979.

“Despite the fact there were hundreds of Steiner schools across Europe at that time, in the UK it was all very new,” says Michael, who came across the ethos of the Austrian-born educational leader: Rudolf Steiner, while a student at York University.

“It began for me in 1971 when I heard about a community called Botton Village, near Whitby. I hiked all the way there with my tent on my back, and when I arrived I found this thriving community of workshops and farms with Steiner principles at the core of their work.

It was all about a creative, caring and ecological way of working and teaching and I knew this was something I had to get involved with.”

Soon after, a chance meeting on a bus with fellow student and his future wife, Joan Rose, led to a powerful partnership which was to go on to help establish only the sixth Steiner school in the UK.

York Press: Michael and Joan Rose outside the school todayMichael and Joan Rose outside the school today

“The Camphill Village Trust which ran Botton Village also had a centre called The Croft, in Malton and it was their staff who asked us to help set up a Steiner kindergarten for their own children,” says Joan. “I began working there in 1976 and was so inspired I went on to formally train as a Steiner teacher.”

As word spread the school grew rapidly and they soon needed a new home. “As a temporary measure we moved into the old Poppleton Gate Hospital which had been closed down,” says Michael.

“For a peppercorn rent of just £5 a year we established our school – surrounded by ghostly old wards still with the beds in situ!”

The next opportunity came up in the Bishophill Senior area in York City Centre in 1981 where an ever-increasing band of parents and supportive partners clubbed together and bought the old Vickers Glassworks and Instruments factory which had been built in 1855.

“It was in dire straits – we couldn’t even step into one half of the building until the asbestos had been cleared,” Michael recalls “but within the year we had six classes and a kindergarten.”

At this point, exactly 40 years ago, the school formally registered with Companies House and began life as an official independent school in York.

But by 1984, rising popularity meant it was clear the school would need to be on the move yet again and then they came across the Danesmead Secondary School in Fulford.

Like many schools at that time as the old grammar school systems began to be dismantled, the Danesmead, built in 1953, was scheduled to close and the large site bought by developers.

Much of the building and extensive sports fields became residential areas but the Steiner parents managed to negotiate the sale of the middle section of the school building, saving it from demolition.

“It was 18 months before we could finally move in,” says Michael. “It was definitely a shock when we opened the doors…”

John Atkinson, who was a parent and the volunteer development officer, says the first job he had to do was befriend the local vandals.

“The most obvious issue was that 250 window panes had been smashed but this was just the start of the damage,” he says.

“As I lived nearby, I started popping down regularly to check on things and one night I actually caught a group of children in the act.

"I explained that we were setting up a school and then I asked them to help us. I appointed them as “voluntary” security guards which they were very pleased with and do you know, we had very little trouble after that.”

Help came from other unexpected sources to begin the mammoth job of repairing the damage and rebuilding the site. Linda Fryer was both a parent and teacher at the school from 1982 until 1999 and remembers “extraordinary” support from people outside the direct school community.

As the developers began demolition outside, the army of parents moved in, working every spare moment – often well into the night.

York Press: Renovations to the schoolRenovations to the school

“It was a huge undertaking,” says Michael. “In some places walls had literally been chopped off where they stood, leaving us completely open to the elements – and we quickly got used to putting up emergency walls made of breeze blocks or raggedy bits of brickwork until we could get them done properly!

"Luckily some of our parents had basic skills in plumbing or electrics, I had joinery skills - in fact I made all the blackboards – others set up the offices or helped with the legal side of things.”

Gradually classrooms began to appear. Desks and chairs were bought from salvage yards and the children moved in. They then helped to create the beautiful play areas – still in use today – helping to build shelters and playhouses alongside their parents.

“We still had plenty of battles ahead, particularly with: “The Beast”, says Michael. “This was a horrendous old heating system that rattled its way inefficiently across the entire school. We did manage to get all the broken windows replaced however with a “penny a pane” appeal and then we began renting out our business wing, which meant we could continue to fund improvements to the school.” (Steiner schools are non-profit making with school fees kept as low as possible).

Becci Eriksson remembers the heating system very well. She joined the school as a pupil at its Bishophill home when her family moved to the UK from Sweden where Steiner schools are part of the established state-funded system.

York Press: Becci Eriksson with school friendsBecci Eriksson with school friends

“As children we thought it was all really exciting,” she recalls. “We were especially pleased to get ‘special privileges’ of being allowed to use the new café as our common room!

Steiner education focuses on small class sizes so this really felt like being part of one big family. Everyone got involved – I remember a visiting German exchange group came to stay with us and it wasn’t long before we had them helping out too!”

Despite having never sat a test of any kind (while carefully assessing each child’s educational development, Steiner schools do not have any formal exams), Becci went on to achieve A Levels and a degree in Fine Art.

“Everyone in my class went on to university with the exception of one girl who went straight into business and is now earning more than any of us!” she says. “Most Steiner children do exceptionally well academically, despite the fact we do not follow the mainstream system. I think that says a lot.”

A community built York Steiner School and this ethos still continues today. In preparation for the new term in just a few weeks time, the school has once again been filled with parents, grandparents and local people, working together as they clean, paint and refresh the classrooms ready for another year.

“At our heart, we are hands-on people, used to hard work and achieving things,” says Joan. “People are passionate about what we stand for - an inclusive education valuing all the ways individual people can contribute to society – with a love of learning at our core.

“This has particular significance now as we move out of a pandemic. There is a greater interest in Steiner education than ever before as parents who have been educating their children at home are reassessing what is most important in their children’s lives.”

Fabulous at Forty - some of the anniversary celebrations coming up at York Steiner School

Oct 4: "WOW (Waldorf One World) We are Forty!" whole school sponsored bike ride and 40th birthday picnic: Every child takes part with older classes ending at Selby and the kindergarten children cycling to nearby Rowntree Park. Celebration picnic party at the end.

Throughout September: Our School's History Project: Interviews with key people from our past which the children will collate for a celebration display and school archives.

Christmas: Grand Pub History Quiz: Who will win the title of 'Top History Buff' with quirky questions about the last 40 years of our school.

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