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Plans for controversial free school in Tunbridge Wells area

By Kent and Sussex Courier  |  Posted: June 14, 2013

AGE-APPROPRIATE LEARNING: Minty Samways, standing right, with fellow project team member Aimee Brunyee and children Chael, 7, and Lucian, 2, who are prospective founder pupils of the school

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A BRAND of school which has caused controversy when setting up elsewhere in the country is aiming to launch in west Kent or East Sussex.

Interest has been expressed from parents across Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Edenbridge, Westerham, Crowborough and Uckfield regarding the creation of a Steiner free school in the region.

It is unclear where the school would be located at this stage, but once demand is gauged, a proposed town or village will be put forward in the plans.

The Sussex Weald Free School would teach children according to the Steiner curriculum, aiming to produce free-thinking pupils through a creative programme, which sees youngsters taught to read and write at the age of six, rather than four.

It would be only the fifth Government-funded Steiner school in the country, with the first of its kind in the South West prompting claims last year it was a waste of public money – and concern over the alleged racism of the creator Rudolf Steiner.

But Minty Samways, who with her husband Jonathan is heading up the proposals, said those claims were taken out of context and that the Government's free school drive allowed parents who cannot afford private education to choose an alternative.

"We're doing it because within the state school system parents don't have a different choice," said the 62-year-old, who worked in a Steiner school's administration department for 25 years.

"The main difference with a Steiner school is the curriculum is child development led and the teaching is age-appropriate.

"When they're ready, then you start to teach them to read and write. It's tried and tested throughout Europe and there are 1,000 schools worldwide."

In November last year, there was concern when a state-funded Steiner school was launched in Frome, Somerset, partly because of the beliefs of Steiner, the man who began the movement almost 100 years ago.

Some were worried the Austrian philosopher's principles were racist, as he thought black people were less spiritually developed than white people.

But Mrs Samways, of Ashurst Wood, West Sussex, said Steiner Schools only shared his educational beliefs, and none of his others.

"It's like any philosophy, if you take it out of context and don't study the whole thing it can be misleading – and that's what happened with that," she said.

"The Steiner schools don't teach anthroposophy [his philosophy], it's not a faith school in that sense. All they do is base the curriculum on his educational ideas. It's nothing to do with his other ideas."

The school would cater for about 600 children aged from four to 16, and is likely to be based in a town or village in the Ashdown Forest area.

An application to the Department for Education is aimed to be submitted in January next year, with the intention, if approved, to open the new school in September 2015.

A public meeting about the school will be held on Friday, June 21, at 7.30pm in Nutley Village Memorial Hall, East Sussex.

It will include a talk by Simon Shirley, a Steiner teacher, on Steiner education.

For more school stories see pages 20&21

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