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date: 29 September 2023

Alternative Educationfree

Alternative Educationfree

  • Martin MillsMartin MillsUniversity of Queensland
  •  and Glenda McGregorGlenda McGregorGriffith University


Alternative schooling has a long history. However, defining alternative schooling is difficult because it necessitates an answer to the question: “alternative to what?” It suggests that there is an accepted schooling archetype from which to differentiate. However, just what that model might be is likely to vary over time and place. In one perspective, alternative schools challenge what Tyack and Tobin, in 1994, referred to as the traditional grammar of schooling as it pertains to conventional forms of schooling developed in Western societies since the Industrial Revolution. Alternative schools challenge the taken-for-granted grammar of schooling variously through their organization, governance structures, curriculum, pedagogy, type of students, and/or particular philosophy. Certain types of alternative schools, including democratic schools, developmental and holistic alternative schools (e.g., Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner), and flexi schools, might offer lessons to the educational mainstream on how to be more inclusive and socially just. However, there are also ways in which they can work against such principles.


  • Alternative and Non-formal Education 


In this article we explore different types of alternative schools. We begin with a consideration of the term “alternative” followed by an exploration of three different modes of alternative schooling. We subsequently conclude with an analysis of the issues associated with alternative schooling in relation to social justice. Here we seek to elucidate the lessons from alternative schooling movements/models that will further the aims of creating an education system that caters to the needs of all young people.

The key question in considering alternative schools as a category is: “Alternative to what?” In today’s climate when schools are increasingly becoming part of a “systemless system” (Lawn, 2013), as a consequence of devolution and differentiation through movements toward charter schools (United States), free schools and academies (England, Sweden), and independent public schools (Australia), it can become a little difficult to determine what is “alternative” and what is “mainstream.” To some extent, as Peter Kraftl (2013) has recognized, a mainstream/alternative binary is a fallacy. Furthermore, as Hope (2015, p. 109) says of the United Kingdom: “there is not one cohesive alternative system.” Thus we contend that the term “alternative” is extremely problematic as it relates to a myriad of ways in which schools differ from traditional forms of schooling (Mills & McGregor, 2014; Quinn, Poirier, Faller, Gable, & Tonelson, 2006; Raywid, 1990, 1994; te Riele, 2007; Woods & Woods, 2009).

In trying to come to grips with the term “alternative schooling,” we have used Raywid’s (1994) typology of three different types of provision because of its continued currency in contemporary educational landscapes. Type 1 includes schools that seek to develop innovative structures, curriculum, and pedagogies to engage young people in learning. These, she argues, are very much focused on student needs. Type 2 refers to flexi schools, second chance schools, or last chance schools. Such schools focus on “fixing up” the behavior of students and provide a curriculum that is very similar to that of mainstream schools. Type 3 also attempts to “fix” students, but with the aim of returning them to the mainstream. In this article we are primarily interested in Type 1 and Type 2 schools because Type 3 situates the “problem” within the student rather than the institution. We have argued elsewhere (see McGregor, Mills, te Riele, Baroutsis, & Hayes, 2017) that such a perspective reinforces social injustice and reproduction of class privilege. Here we focus on those alternative schools that stake a claim to an existence in their own right because of the different ways they approach the education of young people. Within Raywid’s typology, however, there is no mention of what these schools are “different from.”

In his working definition of what he calls alternative learning spaces, Kraftl (2013) provides the following insights. For him, “alternative educational approaches are those not administered, controlled and/or predominantly funded through state-sanctioned educational programmes assumed to be the ‘mainstream’ in countries where education is an assumed, universal right for children” (Kraftl, 2013, p. 2). We find aspects of this definition useful for determining “alternative” educational sites because in most cases there is evidence of independence from a central government authority; however, they are usually still subject to accreditation regulations. However, as indicated above, the fragmentation of the mainstream poses new questions for those wanting to define “alternative” within the context of shifting educational landscapes. Within such a divided system it is theoretically possible for an English free school (a school set up by an organization or a group of individuals, funded by the government but not controlled by the local authority) to develop and market itself as a “democratic alternative school” while being completely dependent upon government funding. Thus, for our purposes here, we have chosen to use a definition of “alternative school” that clearly challenges traditional notions of schooling.

In this article we limit our discussion of “alternative schools” to those that in some way or other subvert/challenge/undermine what Tyack and Tobin (1994) call the “grammar of schooling”: that is, the taken-for-granted regulations, rules, and assumptions about how classrooms and schools are structured and operate. This might entail how decisions are made in respect of governance structures but also underpinning philosophies of education and development; how and what curriculum is implemented; how the school day is organized; the types of students enrolled; the nature of the school climate; and the engagement of non-educational staff in the daily life of the school. Thus, the ways in which a school might challenge the “grammar” of schooling could include all or some of these factors in a variety of combinations.

There is a long history of alternative schooling in many countries reflecting attempts to challenge conventional wisdom about schooling and to provide an alternative “grammar” of school organization through the inclusion of student voice in all matters related to schooling. These schools tend to be located within a democratic schooling tradition. In Kraftl’s (2013) terms, such schools tend to be “independent” in that they are autonomous from any form of central control and largely rely upon school fees to operate. The English school Summerhill, which opened in 1921 and continues to operate today, is the classic example of such an alternative school (see Neill, 1960, 1970). As with the schools we discuss in the next section, the underpinning philosophy of the school when it was established was located within a context concerned about rising authoritarianism in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Fundamental to this school’s foundation was, and still is, the belief that the students should be integrated into the decision-making processes of the school and have personal control over their daily lives. Examples of other schools that have adopted such democratic, student-centered approaches to the structures of schooling include the Sands School in Devon, England, Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, and the Booroobin Sudbury School in Queensland, Australia (see Nagata, 2007).

It is often argued that alternative schools in the United States have their roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. These were schools that were designed to provide liberating curricula and ways of organizing and decision-making that reflected the democratic principles of such movements. They were thus in some ways a component or product of the countercultural revolution. It has also been argued that, in the United States, alternative education regained some momentum with the charter school and other similar programs (Kim & Taylor, 2008) that sought to give parents/caregivers choice in their children’s education. These schools fall into what could be loosely called a democratic tradition.

Other schools that fall into the “alternative” category are those that are part of a network of schools underpinned by a particular educational philosophy such as Montessori and Steiner/Waldorf. These philosophies are usually “child-centered” and are concerned not only with supporting the intellectual growth of students but also nurturing their emotional, social, and sometimes spiritual growth as well. In the main, these schools are independent from the government sector. However, there are some government schools, especially pre-schools (for example, in the United Kingdom and Australia), that have taken up the philosophy of one or more of these movements. These schools aside, the vast majority of such schools are dependent upon school fees for their operational budgets.

Schools shaped by paradigms of democracy and child-centered philosophies have largely developed in response to traditional forms of schooling and what their founders have seen as environments that, in various degrees, stifle young people’s creativity, deny them their rights, fail to develop them as well-rounded citizens, damage their emotional and spiritual well-being, and are overly concerned with developing young people as “human capital.” In recent times alternative schooling options have responded to the needs of those young people who might be deemed to be “disenfranchised” by virtue of their economic and social marginalization and subsequently exit the mainstream for a variety of reasons. In many ways these schools are often seen as “dumping grounds” for unwanted students (Mills, Renshaw, & Zipin, 2013). However, research shows (e.g., Mills & McGregor, 2014; te Riele, 2009) that such last-chance/flexi schools also offer alternative ways of engaging highly marginalized young people in education via their “non-school” like environments. Te Riele (2007) has developed a useful typology of such alternative provision based on whether the programs are long or short term and whether or not they are focused on changing young people or changing the way in which education is delivered and organized for them. In this article we focus on those schools that attempt the latter.

We reject binaries of “mainstream education bad”/“alternative schooling good.” There are schools that could be considered to be part of the mainstream that work to challenge many of the oppressive assumptions of “traditional schooling” (Lingard, Thomson, & Wrigley, 2011; Mills, 2015), and there are also schools within the alternative sector that work to reproduce existing inequalities and injustices through a lack of adequate curricular richness and diversity. However, on balance, it is our view that elements of many of these alternative schools provide some lessons for the mainstream in terms of supporting a more inclusive form of schooling. The first set of schools we consider are those we refer to as democratic schools. We then review Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner educational approaches and conclude this section with a discussion of flexible schooling models.

Democratic Schools

Concerns with democracy and education have had a long history (see, e.g., Dewey, 1916). So too have democratic alternative schools had a long tradition (Neill, 1960, 1970). Such schools are usually perceived as alternatives to the mainstream due to their principles of governance. Within the structures of democratic schools, students tend to have much greater input into the key decisions that affect them than they do in conventional schools. These decisions can relate to attendance at class, curriculum, school rules, the employment of teachers, punishments for misdemeanors, everyday activities, and sometimes financial matters. The vast majority of such schools are fee paying, which may lead to accusations of being the prerogative of middle-class students. While there are justifications for such accusations, there are clearly many aspects to these schools that provide key lessons for mainstream schools concerned with educating their students in respect of democratic skills and a commitment to democracy more generally. Furthermore, there have been government schools that have also attempted to implement democratic procedures (see Apple & Beane, 1999; Fielding, 2007, 2013; Fielding & Moss, 2011); however, to do so within the large bureaucracies of government schools usually proves much more difficult.

Democratic schools can be found in many locations (Gvirtz & Minvielle, 2009; Nagata, 2007; Neill, 1960). However, as many have pointed out, “democracy” can be a contested term (see Black, 2011; Mills & McGregor, 2014; Perry, 2009; Woods & Woods, 2009). There is not the space here to explore the nuances of the term. However, perhaps the distinction between “representative” and “direct” democracy constitutes the tension at the heart of democratic education (see Fielding, 2013). A representative democracy is a system in which members of that group elect others they trust or who have similar values to make decisions on their behalf. In terms of schooling, student representative councils best represent this form of democracy, although their decision-making capacities are usually very limited (Black, 2011). Direct democracy involves members of a community having an opportunity to provide input into all decisions that impact upon them. It is this form of democracy that tends to be advocated among those in the democratic schooling movement, as exemplified by the European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC).

On its website, EUDEC suggests that there are two pillars to democratic education: “self-determined learning” and “a community based on equality and mutual respect.” It suggests that with the first “pillar,” learning can occur in conventional classrooms, although learning does not occur only there, but students have a say over how their time is spent, how their interests are incorporated into the curriculum and school organization, and how they prepare for their post-school pathways. The second pillar is concerned with creating an environment where all participants in the community have their rights and opinions respected. It is the school meeting that is usually central to these schools’ decision-making processes. It is perhaps Summerhill that has done more than any other school to promote the importance of the meeting to democratic schooling.

Summerhill, set up by A. S. Neill in 1921, is one of the most famous and enduring democratic schools, has inspired the creation of democratic schools across the world, and still attracts an international student body (Stronach & Piper, 2009). The school’s website provides examples of its philosophy:

The important freedom at Summerhill is the right to play. All lessons are optional. There is no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up, though the community itself has expectations of reasonable conduct from all individuals. Bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour is dealt with on-the-spot by specially elected ombudsmen, or can be brought to the whole community in its regular meetings.

In an era driven by performativity (Ball, 2003, 2012) and concerns about risk (Beck, 1992), Summerhill, and schools like it, have been critiqued for their lack of focus on academic work and child safety, especially around issues of sex, and the possibility of physical harm through “risky” outdoor activities. Indeed, in 2000 England’s school regulatory body, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), sought to have the school closed. This ended in a prolonged legal battle and political campaign, which saw the school being validated in its approaches and the government admonished. The school website provides details of this case. In more recent times Ofsted reports have been much more positive. For example, in 2011 their report on the school stated:

Strengths of the school include outstanding pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and outstanding promotion of pupils’ welfare health and safety, including effective safeguarding procedures. Pupils’ behaviour is outstanding and they make good progress. The curriculum and teaching and assessment are good.

It is often the notion that “lessons are optional” that raises concerns of those worried that children and young people will abuse this freedom, thereby learning “nothing.” However, the proponents of the philosophy underpinning the school counter this with the argument that the compulsion to learn does not lead to “real” learning and may do more damage than good. The Summerhill website quotes A. S. Neill:

Creators learn what they want to learn in order to have the tools that their originality and genius demand. We do not know how much creation is killed in the classroom with its emphasis on learning. I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to university, but the girl’s whole soul was artistic. The notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting . . . time is nothing less than a curse—a curse that blinds thousands of teachers and most school inspectors.

The school has also received criticism based on child safety issues. Stronach and Piper (2009) undertook research there as part of a project on “touch” in schools. The school is one where pupils and teachers were known to “touch each other.” For example, the school had been critiqued in a “mini-inspection” in 2001 for allowing “inappropriate touching” because an inspector had witnessed a child being given a piggyback ride by a teacher (Stronach & Piper, 2009, p. 51). As part of their research, they saw this as a nonsensical issue. While the students and teachers had close relationships, the lack of privacy (what they referred to as a “benign panopticon”), combined with students’ heavy involvement in the decision- and rule-making processes of the school, the opportunities for students to raise matters that concerned them, and students’ confidence to do, so meant that these matters were seen as something that belonged to the “outside world.” They indicated instead that the ways in which students and teachers negotiated relationships was a key component of the learning at Summerhill. They suggested that the school environment:

provoked relationships based on self-knowledge and negotiated spaces that were potentially learning-rich in all sorts of social ways. People learned to read each other, and hence themselves, in a kind of social dialectic: in such interaction varying degrees of “relational touch” were negotiated. And the panopticon features were available, more or less, to all.

(Stronach & Piper, 2009, p. 58)

They also indicated that most concerns about safety raised by students related to outside activities involving tree climbing, skateboarding, and various forms of play. The students were involved in making some rules to make various activities safer—for example, not carrying sticks that were bigger then the person carrying them. However, for students the risks associated with growing up were important ones for learning. According to one student: “whatever you do there’s a chance you’ll hurt yourself and if you can’t have chances like that, you can’t live” (Stronach & Piper, 2009, p. 57).

While Summerhill is perhaps the most well known of schools in the democratic tradition, it is certainly not alone. Mills and McGregor (2014), for example, provide case study data on another democratic school in the United Kingdom that was run as a community where all students and staff contributed to the running of the school via the school meeting. Teachers at the school in Mills and McGregor described the school meeting as the “school executive.” It was here that decisions about staff pay, suspensions, school rules, and so on were debated, made, and reinforced. These meetings, while often guided by the teachers, demonstrated that young people could be very involved and committed to the process and to reaching a satisfactory outcome. Within these meetings, students of all ages, teachers, and sometimes other workers in the school made decisions together. In some democratic schools, teachers (or key personnel) have the right to veto decisions considered dangerous; in other schools there is no right of veto. The European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC) suggests that the product of this form of organization is “tolerant, open-minded, responsible individuals who know how to express their opinions and listen to those of others; well-educated, active citizens for a modern democratic society.”

In the Mills and McGregor study (2014), students at some schools indicated that at times there were stresses put on them when they had to determine outcomes for other students or teachers who had not gone along with agreed-upon rules or when they themselves were the subject of the meeting. In one instance a teacher had been asked to leave the school by the school meeting because of his apparent failure to respect the values of the school. He had been appointed when they had had only one application for a science teacher. The decision-making process that preceded this had included discussions at school meetings to assess the teacher’s progress followed by consultations with other staff and the provision of various means of support to learn the values and ways of working of the school. However, the teacher resigned at the last of such meetings. One teacher stated:

I remember the final meeting which I think lasted about two or three days, because he was very emotional he loved the school and he was in the school meeting and he was in tears and it was “please” you know “I can change” and I remember after the final meeting when he finally offered his resignation, a couple of kids coming to us and going, “ometimes I just wish someone would make the decisions for us.” So, you know there is a responsibility in a sense, and it’s difficult it’s not easy.

(Mills & McGregor, 2014, p. 77)

That it is “not easy” is a point made by Stronach and Piper (2009). They note that at Summerhill the meeting is a place of conflict as well as consensus. They point out that laws are devised and voted upon, transgressions are considered, issues of right and wrong debated, and general policies considered. At Summerhill, any student may “bring up” a teacher or student who has offended them and the offense is considered in depth. However, they also say that “[t]here is a clear element of persuasion, and also of public shaming, in these arrangements, but no signs of scapegoating. It is held, even, that those ‘brought up’ seldom resent their accusers” (Stronach & Piper, 2009, p. 53).

Stronach and Piper (2009) conclude that these democratic practices do work to support the development of student identity and “democratic friendly relations between pupils of different age, gender, ethnic group and nationality.” Issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia are, they indicate, not tolerated in the school because of these democratic practices. Other democratic schools would argue the same.

Some teachers relished the prospect of taking such practices into the mainstream. For example, a teacher in an English democratic school stated:

I’d love at some point to take this idea, adapt it and put it into Brixton, put it into inner city London where there’s forty different languages spoken in the class—somewhere where alternative education isn’t such a thing—that would be a huge challenge.

(Mills & McGregor, 2014, p. 80)

Democratic schools challenge the traditional grammar of schooling, which is largely based upon age-based hierarchical power structures that continue to inhibit the uptake of democratic practices and philosophies.

Another set of alternative schools that are grounded in notions of freedom, although without the commitment to democratic traditions, include those that shape their approach to education via an emphasis on holistic human development, often including spiritual dimensions to these processes. In contrast to the conventional industrial model of mass education, such schools adhere to educational philosophies that are child-centered and individualistic. To exemplify this approach, we have chosen to discuss Waldorf/Steiner and Montessori schools, which, despite having their roots in the progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, continue to flourish globally in the 21st century.

Developmental and Holistic Educational Alternatives

The educational progressivism of the late 19th century challenged the traditions of a classical education based upon preparation for university, which was heavily circumscribed by social class. Schools that sought a new educational paradigm targeted the poor and experimented with philosophical and/or developmental frameworks. Two that have continued to the present day are considered here: Montessori education and Steiner/Waldorf education.

Montessori Education

The origins of Montessori education date back to 1897 in Rome, when Maria Montessori (1870–1952), Italy’s first female physician, began to develop her theories while still a student. Initially, Maria Montessori’s work concerned ways to educate children with special needs, and for this she turned to her scientific background and medical training. Her successes in this field led her to wonder whether her methods would work with children generally—in particular with the children of the poor who, at the time, were not considered to be “educable” (Thayer-Bacon, 2012). In 1907 she opened her own school in a warehouse, and through detailed observations of her students and experimentations with classroom resources and structures, she developed a pedagogical framework that, today, continues to have influence globally (Rathunde, 2009). This first school provided the children with a range of previously selected learning materials from which they could choose; they were free to move around the room according to their academic interests and learn at their own pace. This “radical” approach proved to be extremely successful and attracted national and international attention (Thayer-Bacon, 2012).

Like Neill, Montessori’s ideas drew upon impulses toward educational progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that sought to create a more peaceful world by educating children in ways that would allow them to develop their full potential as thinking, feeling, creative human beings (Edwards, 2002). There are also connections with the theory of American progressive educationalist John Dewey’s (1859–1952) and “constructivist” theorists Jean Piaget (1896–1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) (Glassman, 2001; Ültanır, 2012).

Montessori education combines human development theory and a constructionist approach to learning via an emphasis upon what Montessori saw as children’s “natural curiosity,” freedom to move and choose activities within a structured learning environment: “The Montessori pedagogy encourages individual creativity when solving problems, teaches independence, and supports the development of self-control with the teacher assuming the role of ‘facilitator’ ” (Ültanır, 2012, p. 204; see also Montessori, 1996).

Montessori sought to “decenter” the role of the teacher so as to allow children to question their learning and focus intently upon it for as long as they wished according to their interests (Montessori, 1912). In sum, the child becomes the center of learning. In order for students’ developmental needs to be supported, Montessori structured the curriculum so that it moved from basic skills to more complex ones. A constructivist approach allows that “[a]t any one time in a day all subjects—practical work, math, language, science, history, geography, art, music, etc.—will be studied, at all levels, by children of mixed ages learning from each other, facilitated by careful observation, individual lessons, record keeping, and help of the teacher (Ültanır, 2012, p. 205).

Montessori’s support for in the “innate” progress of psychological development and consequently children’s spontaneous choices being right for optimal development was coupled with an emphasis on students’ capacity for “deep concentration.” This latter focus has led some researchers (see, e.g., Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2006) to see her work as confirming ideas about the efficacy of connecting mind and body during learning “because it facilitates student experiences of deep engagement and interest that have been referred to as flow . . . associated with intrinsically motivated learning and talent development” (Rathunde, 2009, p. 189, italics in original). Indeed, Montessori herself pointed to this aspect of her work as key to her theory that individual learning was more influenced by the “delicate inner sensibilities intrinsic to life” (Rathunde, 2009, p. 195) than by external environmental elements.

Montessori’s system was developed to accommodate young children from birth to age twelve; she was working on a framework for adolescents when she died in 1952 (Montessori, 1996). As an alternative educational framework, Montessori education has maintained a considerable global presence. The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association (NAMTA) estimates that worldwide there are around 20,000 Montessori schools. However, according to head director of the Maria Montessori School in Notting Hill, England, and editor of the Montessori Review, “Montessori is not a registered name and . . . it is possible to set up a school and call it Montessori even if you do not have any Montessori trained teachers and not one piece of Montessori material” (Livingston, 2016). The only way to check whether a school is following Maria Montessori’s framework closely is to search for information about teacher training and school accreditation on Montessori websites relevant to individual countries and the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), which Montessori set up in 1929. This organization was established to protect the integrity of Montessori education through teacher training, dissemination of information, and the sale of materials and resources.

In terms of challenging the grammar of schooling, Montessori education focuses attention upon the internal psychological and developmental elements of each individual child so as to shape learning experiences. While sharing some commonalities with Montessori, Steiner education demonstrates key differences in respect of its framing of a developmental and holistic approach to schooling.

Waldorf/Steiner Education

Waldorf/Steiner education takes its name from its founder, Rudolf Steiner, and the company in Stuttgart Germany where its ideas were first tested on the children of the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in 1919 (Dhondt, Van de Vijver, & Verstraete, 2015). Steiner’s educational framework drew upon late 19th-century progressive educational thinking (to which Maria Montessori was a major contributor, as noted earlier) and was developed during a period during which many thinkers sought to create a better social order in the aftermath of World War I (Ashley, 2009). Part of the progressive impulse was to have schools that were not only coeducational and non-denominational but that catered to children of all economic and social backgrounds. In contrast to educational progressivism of the early 20th century that favored a child-centered approach to education (vom Kinde aus, from the child itself), Steiner emphasized the authority of the teacher for educational success, going as far as to say that children had a need for authoritative (not authoritarian) teachers (Uhrmacher, 1995).

In terms of child development, Steiner identified three stages during which he considered certain aspects dominant: 0–7 years—the time of imitation and physical control; 7–14 years—the time of feeling/aesthetic senses; and 14–21 years—the time of thinking and judgment (Ashley, 2009). There is some debate about the degree to which Steiner saw these as fixed as he also referred at other times to the impact of the individual development of the child (Dhondt et al., 2015).

Central to Steiner’s thinking was the notion of individual freedom as the ultimate outcome of education (Carlgren, 1972). The theory he developed from this emerged as the philosophical foundation for the Waldorf approach, which he named “anthroposophy.” Steiner’s “anthroposophy” had its roots in his prior involvement in European Theosophical societies, which were grounded in desires to understand the psychic and mystical realms of existence via the study of various combinations of world and ancient religions, science, and philosophy. However, in 1912 Steiner deviated from such groups by setting up his own version—the Anthroposophical Society (Uhrmacher, 1995). Literally meaning “the wisdom of man” (Ashley, 2009), anthroposophy posited that the material, visible world was inseparable from and intertwined with the spiritual world:

Like Spinoza and Goethe, Steiner embraced what philosophers call “psychophysical double aspectism.” That is, the mind and body are inseparable: What affects the body is experienced in the mind, consciously or unconsciously, through emotions or thoughts . . . The goal of the process of knowledge is to raise one’s consciousness so that one can experience (or inwardly see) ideas in addition to sense perceptions. In this way, concept and percept become one. This last point leads to the second key tenet behind Anthroposophy: human beings have the potential to perceive and enter into the spiritual world.

(Uhrmacher, 1995, pp. 386–387)

Anthroposophy also embraced beliefs in reincarnation and one’s ability to “develop the soul” here on earth. Therefore, there are key elements of Waldorf education that set it apart from secular models. Ashley sums it up thus: “Anthroposophy underpins a pedagogy of education toward freedom that sees schools and teachers charged with the sacred task of helping the child’s threefold being (body, soul and spirit) to incarnate” (2009, p. 210).

The curriculum is structured according to Steiner’s three stages of child development, with pedagogy designed to follow the natural inclinations of the child during those periods. For example, during the early years, teachers engage in modeling behavior; middle-year students would require a lot of visuals and storytelling; and finally, in the senior years of schooling, young people would engage in more challenging dialogues with teachers as they apply more sophisticated thinking to their learning and become more inclined to question the authority of their teachers. Within this context, there is also an emphasis upon developing the imagination and integrating intellectual and artistic endeavors for a more holistic approach to learning that prioritizes the role of human interaction and the spiritual development and well-being of each child (Woods, Ashley, & Woods, 2005). Consequently, the use of communication technologies may be delayed until high school, and books come second to the “wisdom” and inspiration provided by teachers (Ashley, 2009). However, according to a report on Steiner schools in England commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills: “The Steiner school curriculum is not designed to guide and encourage young people into becoming adherents of anthroposophy. Rather, Steiner education and the mainstream sector share the goal of enabling pupils to grow into adults capable of thinking for themselves and making independent judgements” (Woods et al., 2005, p. 6).

Other features of Steiner education noted in the report include an emphasis on rhythm (eurythmy/the art of movement), rituals, symbols, and ceremony and a focus on individuals and as members of the community. In terms of governance and decision-making processes, Steiner schools aim to be collegial and non-hierarchical (Woods et al., 2005). Thus the Waldorf/Steiner alternative to the traditional grammar of schooling provides a unique blend of developmental and spiritual individualism combined with democratic impulses and authoritative teaching practices, albeit with identified weaknesses that relate to the cult status often attributed to Steiner and social justice issues pertaining to race and class (Ashley, 2009).

Steiner Education Australia estimates that globally there are over 1,050 such schools in 60 countries. National organizations include the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (United Kindom and Ireland), and Steiner Education Australia. International organizations like the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education are responsible for certifying the use of the name “Steiner” and “Waldorf” with regard to setting up such models of schooling (Dhondt et al., 2015). Steiner/Waldorf schools operate in the independent educational sector, and therefore parents pay fees, albeit often on a sliding scale based on need. Thus, as with most democratic schools, it is often the children of middle-class white parents who are able to access this alternative model of education. The right of Steiner schools to refuse admission to children without explanation has class and social implications (Ashley, 2009; Woods et al., 2005).

In exemplifying attempts to provide developmental and holistic educational alternatives to the mainstream via a discussion of Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner educational frameworks, we do not suggest that they are the sole providers and the best models. “Developmentalism” has been criticized for its rigidity when used to determine what and when children are capable of learning (Ashley, 2009). The resistance on the part of Waldorf/Steiner education to embracing new technologies has also been cited as problematic (Ashley, 2009). However, the fact that they have continued to draw adherents well into the 21st century suggests that there are many elements of both systems that are attractive to parents and their children. Additionally, there appears to be a strong resonance between many of their beliefs and practices and those of the most recent iteration of alternative schools—“flexi” and “second chance.”

Flexi or Second Chance Schools

The third category of alternative schooling we are concerned with here are those non–fee-paying schools that work with young people who no longer fit into the mainstream system. They are sometimes referred to as “second chance schools” (see, e.g., Gallagher, 2010). However, this term is contested, and many other ways of describing the schools have been used; for example, te Riele (2012) refers to such schools as “learning choices.” We tend to use the term “flexi school” because in many ways “flexibility” encompasses key facets of this type of educational offering. In the English context these schools are known as “alternative provision,” to which students are referred. They remain the responsibility of the referring school. Either the school or the local authority funds such placements (Department for Education, 2016). These sites best reflect Raywid’s Type 3 because of the emphasis on “fixing” the child off-site.

The alternative schools we are concerned with here primarily cater to the needs of young people who have “dropped out” or have been “pushed out” of mainstream schools and have nowhere else to go. The students who attend these schools tend to be from poor backgrounds and/or marginalized cultural backgrounds. Some operate as schools to which young people have to be referred; in other situations they operate as schools that are open to all. They have become an important feature of many international systems (see, e.g., Harper, Heron, Houghton, O’Donnell, & Sargent, 2011), but there have been significant concerns about this largely unregulated system in England (Ofsted, 2016). Such schools have been accused of perpetuating racism and sexist stereotypes (Thomson & Russell, 2007) and of providing opportunities for the mainstream to treat unwanted students as waste (Mills et al., 2013). At the same time, it is important to note that for many of the young people who attend these schools, it was their only chance to access an education (McGregor, Mills, te Riele, & Hayes, 2015; te Riele, 2006, 2007, 2009). Thus, of the types of alternative schools discussed so far, we suggest that many flexi schools operate within a more clearly defined paradigm of social justice loosely framed around matters of distribution, recognition of difference, and, in some instances, increased opportunities for the exercise of student voice (Fraser, 1997, 2010). Their mission is to be inclusive of all students.

Common characteristics of these schools include the provision of social supports (e.g., social workers, access to housing, legal aid, food, and transport), flexible arrangements around attendance, length of school day, and dress codes, and informalities around names (e.g., teachers being called by their first names). In some cases they provide child care so that young women who have small children can bring them to school. Many of these schools make it possible for young people confronted by poverty and other difficult life circumstances to attend school. They also tend to be much smaller than mainstream schools. Mills and McGregor (2014) explored a range of schools that fell into this category. Some examples from that research give an indication of the type of school in the sector. One of the schools, for example, began its life in a park with homeless young people, another began in a house to support pregnant school girls who had felt marginalized within and/or discouraged from attending their mainstream school, and another had begun as a community project in a rural town with young people who had “dropped out” of school and which was later supported by the government system through mainstream school resources.

In the vast majority of cases young people are highly positive about their flexi schools (Bills, Cook, & Wexler, 2015; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; McGregor & Mills, 2012; te Riele, 2007; Thomson & Pennacchia, 2015). Students often indicate that if it was not for the existence of these schools it would be unlikely that they would participate in any form of education. Indeed, many students have suggested that they would have been involved with drugs, crime, and/or other “anti-social” activities if it was not for their flexi school. A significant body of literature on these schools also highlights the positive contrast that students in these schools make between their current school and their former mainstream school (see, e.g., McGregor & Mills, 2012). Students highlight increased personal attention, positive and caring relations with staff, support for a myriad of “differences,” and the peaceful approaches to conflict resolution. Some also note the more connected curriculum and the individualized learning support provided by flexi schools (McGregor et al., 2015). However, being positive about their flexi school, especially in comparison with their former mainstream school, does not mean that young people are necessarily receiving a high-quality education or that some do not have a preference for their original school (Kim & Taylor, 2008; Thomson & Pennacchia, 2015). Indeed, some students in some sites have expressed concerns that they are not being challenged enough and that they are being denied the opportunities available to students in mainstream schools. Having a caring environment without strong curricular offerings is thus insufficient for the provision of a meaningful and socially just education.

Research has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses evident in the flexi school sector. For example, Mills and McGregor (2014) describe the ways in which these schools pay attention to issues of distribution (Fraser, 1997), that is, how they have addressed issues of economic disadvantage by ensuring that the young people are able to attend and remain in school via the provision of material support. In the United States Lagana-Riordan et al. (2011) were positive about the outcomes of these schools in terms of young people’s engagement in learning. However, in England, Thomson and Pennacchia (2015) have drawn attention to the relationships between the highly behaviorist routines in schools there, the population of these schools by young people who are “on the edges of the mainstream,” and limited curriculum offerings (with the social sciences and languages being largely absent), all of which work against students improving their future life chances. The issue of limited curriculum was also identified by Dunning-Lozano (2016) as an issue in similar types of U.S. alternative schools. She noted, for example, that languages were often absent from the curriculum in continuation schools in California, which, being a prerequisite for college entrance, effectively shut down that pathway for them post-school. Lange and Sletten (2002) also suggest that academic gains are inconsistent in these schools, pointing to the need to ensure that the curriculum and pedagogical practices are sufficiently robust to ensure meaningful learning. Hence, the contribution of these schools to their students’ academic trajectories is of variable quality across the sector.

How flexi schools attend to issues of cultural justice or reflect a concern with valuing of difference has also been inconsistent. In Australia, Shay and Heck (2015) draw attention to the high numbers of Indigenous students in flexible learning schools in that country. However, their work highlights many of the positives that emanate from some of these schools. They draw attention to the research that demonstrates the ways in which Indigenous learners can be engaged in schooling and suggest that these are present in the schools that featured in their research. These factors include nurturing the cultural identity of students, the awareness and cultural competency of educators, engagement with Indigenous families and communities, the presence of Indigenous cultures in schools, the employment of Indigenous peoples in schools, and the importance of leadership in all of these areas (Shay & Heck, 2015, pp. 40–41). While they note the high levels (compared with the mainstream sector) of Indigenous peoples employed in these schools, they maintain that further research is needed to consider the ways in which these schools are benefiting young Indigenous people and how they are engaging with the suggestions about how conventional schools can support Indigenous learners.

Quinn et al. (2006) examined school climate in “exemplary alternative programs in three racially and economically diverse communities” in the United States. Their work suggested that students who had been perceived at their original schools to have been “trouble” tended “to flourish in alternative learning environments where they believe that their teachers, staff, and administrators care about and respect them, value their opinion, establish fair rules that they support, are flexible in trying to solve problems, and take a non-authoritarian approach to teaching” (Quinn et al., 2006, p. 16). Other alternative schools in this space (e.g., California’s continuation schools) have been criticized for the ways in which they embed inequalities based on whiteness in the school systems. This accusation is based on the claim that they remove “undesirable” black children (often boys) from mainstream high schools and condemn them to an education in an alternative school that has limited opportunities (Dunning-Lozano, 2016). Kim and Taylor (2008), in their examination of “Prairie Alternative High School” in the United States also conclude that at this school there was a rejection of “culturally responsive teaching.” An important aspect of inclusive pedagogies is an understanding of the students’ existing knowledges, interests, and cultural and social background.

Unlike the democratic alternative schools, ensuing that students have a voice, or what some refer to as political justice (Fraser, 2010), does not appear to be a major focus of flexi schools, although there are some notable exceptions (Baroutsis, McGregor, & Mills, 2015). For example, Kim and Taylor (2008) note in their research on an alternative school that students felt they had no say in their schooling. For many of the young people in these schools, immediate survival needs are often prioritized over educational needs. For example, if someone is fleeing a domestic violence relationship or has nowhere to sleep for the night, concerns with “voice” in the classroom and the school might well seem quite secondary. However, Hargreaves’s (2011) National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) At a Glance report, exploring how young people in Australia fared in respect of education and training during the period 2006–2010, notes that an important element in assisting young people to re-engage with education and training is the practice of helping them to identify their own learning and training needs. For Hargreaves (2011), there is a strong emphasis on having respect for the learning needs and capacities of the individual. This is supported by Hayes (2012), who argues the case for “doing school differently” so as to enable young people to manage their lives while pursuing an education (see also Boyd, McDowall, & Farrall, 2006). According to De Jong and Griffiths (2006), in addition to the provision of pastoral care, alternative educational provision must include “student ownership of their learning program; planned future pathways; and, literacy and numeracy development.”

Concerns have been raised about the alternative education sector that is working with marginalized students in terms of it acting as a “dumping ground” for students “unwanted” by the education system (Kim, 2011; Kim & Taylor, 2008; Mills, Renshaw, & Zipin, 2013). Indeed, De Jong and Griffiths (2006) has expressed concerns that the increased use of alternative education programs for younger and younger students can lead to them being separated from the mainstream and its benefits and that “poorly constructed and resourced” programs will reinforce students’ poor outcomes from schooling. Associated with this is the possibility that the young people will come to see themselves in deficit ways. For some students, being referred to a flexi school represents “failure” in the mainstream and stigma is often attached to those young people who attend these schools (Dovemark & Beach, 2015; Kim & Taylor, 2008). This is exacerbated by some of the terminology used to describe these students. For example, in some recent reports that focus on alternative schooling and disengagement (see, e.g., KPMG, 2009), there is a focus upon the student as being “at risk.” However, this “at-risk label has connotations of deficiencies in young people themselves and suggests there is a need to ‘fix’ the young person in some way” (te Riele, 2007, p. 56). However, te Riele’s “building-on-strengths” (not focusing on deficits) approach to marginalized young people is reflected in practice in flexi schools in many international jurisdictions. In Belfast, for example, Gallagher in The Second Chance School (2010, p. 456) articulates this perspective well:

The centre aims to celebrate the potential of young people. The ethos of the centre is based on concepts of a fresh start, building bridges and turning negatives into positives. The approach adopted by the staff is based around building secure relationships with pupils so that meaningful progress can be made in the areas of behaviour management, personal and social development and academic achievement.

Overall, we see a lack of coherence in terms of quality in alternative education provision, regardless of location. Some sites have philosophies and practices that open up new possibilities for their students, while others may actually limit student options because the schools neglect curricular aspects of their programs. However, like Ross and Gray (2005), we are interested in the way in which such forms of schooling can contribute to a high-quality schooling system that provides meaningful education (McGregor et al., 2015; see also Aron, 2006; Aron & Zweig, 2003). In the United States, Quinn et al. (2006, p. 16), in their examination of school climate in three effective alternative programs in urban areas, concluded:

Based on these findings we can posit that students identified as troubled or troubling tend to flourish in alternative learning environments where they believe that their teachers, staff and administrators, care about and respect them, value their opinion, establish fair rules that they support, are flexible in trying to solve problems, and take a non-authoritarian approach to teaching.

As this research demonstrates, however well intentioned they might be, it is not enough for alternative schools to be places that simply “care” for young people. Kim and Taylor (2008), for example, argue that “Prairie Alternative High School” was, indeed, a caring place; however, they also contend that it was doing little to break “the cycle of educational inequality” (Kim & Taylor, 2008, p. 208). In this school, many of the students indicated that they wanted to go to college; however, the school’s focus on “credit recovery” did not facilitate this goal (Kim & Taylor, 2008). As they suggested: “Their dreams required a more rigorous college-bound curriculum and career counselling” (Kim & Taylor, 2008, p. 213). Echoing De Jong and Griffiths (2006) and Kim and Taylor (2008, p. 208) also argue that:

A school program is beneficial to students when it provides content, processes, rigor, and concepts that they need to develop and realize their future career goals. A school program that is beneficial to students engages them and leads them through varying processes to critical thinking and synthesis of the concepts and content. Conversely, a school program that is not beneficial to students is behavioristic, positivistic, and reductive. That is, the focus of the program is primarily on an either-or dichotomy: It addresses only lower order thinking and processing skills and does not move students toward their future career goals.

By virtue of the ways in which they attempt to address issues of distribution, recognition of difference (Fraser, 1997), and, in some cases, student voice, we suggest that flexi schools are challenging the traditional grammar of schooling. Furthermore, we contend that the lessons here have purchase in all schools and can be used to understand how to engage young people in the learning process, how to organize schools in ways that can keep young marginalized people in education, and how to take account of their learning needs. The question is: Does this have to occur in an alternative learning space, or is it something that should be happening in all schools?


Prior to the late 19th century, educational provision was largely restricted to the wealthy and privileged in Western societies. Industrialization and subsequent requirements for a more educated workforce gave rise to mass schooling largely modeled on the workhouse, with hierarchical power structures. The creation of human capital needed to drive national economies has been a key factor shaping education policies ever since (Apple, 2013). Philanthropic concerns for the children of the poor coupled with interests in the “new” science of developmental psychology encouraged experimentation in alternative models of schooling such as Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner. Progressive educational theories such as those espoused by Dewey (1916) that connected psychological and social elements of schooling laid the foundations for contemporary dialogues about the manner, method, and purposes of schooling. In the aftermath of 20th-century world wars, notions of children’s rights have given rise to democratic schools as pioneered by A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, established in 1921. While noting their different histories and philosophical framings, what these schools share is a common purpose: to do school differently—to change the “grammar of schooling” so as to respond more accurately and justly to the needs of young people as identified within their particular alternative models. The degree to which democratic, Montessori, and Waldorf/Steiner schools create socially just and inclusive contexts for education is open to debate due to criticisms largely related to class along with specific issues for Montessori (developmentalism) and Waldorf/Steiner (race, spiritualism, dated learning methods) schools. Nevertheless, schools founded in these traditions continue to influence alternative educational thinking and to attract a strong following.

Flexi-schools have also developed in response to the inflexibility and hierarchical nature of mainstream schools and the inability of some to cater to the needs of highly marginalized young people. As an alternative model of schooling, flexi schools exhibit strong impulses toward the achievement of social justice. Through their provision of material support for young people coupled with nurturing, respectful, and inclusive environments, flexi schools seek to “clear the path” for learning for disenfranchised and marginalized young people. However, concerns about the quality of the curriculum in some flexi schools and, often, a lack of meaningful student voice in the democratic tradition indicate that work still needs to be done to ensure that young people who attend flexi (“second chance”) schools do not receive a “second-class” education. Furthermore, there are concerns that the increase in numbers and popularity of these schools reflect a growing trend among mainstream schools to use flexi schools to abrogate their responsibilities to those students whom the mainstream is unable to engage in meaningful learning. As such, despite their good intentions, flexi schools might be seen to be complicit in the creation of a third tier of educational provision that actually helps maintain the conventional “grammar of schooling” in mainstream institutions by allowing them to send “the problem” of “disengaged” students to an alternative education provider, thus stifling the impetus for meaningful long-term reform of conventional ways of “doing school” or “rewriting the grammar of schooling.”

We are of the view that schools should be publically provided at no cost to all young people; we subscribe to a model of schooling that delivers a curriculum that recognizes and values difference, that challenges young people’s thinking in meaningful ways, and that provides them with the capacities to act upon and change the worlds in which they live; we advocate for young people to be given opportunities for making meaningful decisions about their education and enhancing democratic relationships within schools; and we are committed to the principles of social justice that see schooling as a means by which the most marginalized within a society can experience an education that is both free from and seeks to undermine oppression in all its many forms. As such, we suggest that the current grammar of schooling requires rethinking and new sets of guidelines, principles, and rules. To this end, we contend that alternative models of schooling provide some insights into what these might be.


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