“The best way to prepare students for the future is to give them the best learning environment now,” says James Goodlet. As principal of Aurora Southern Highlands Steiner School, he and his staff are not in the business of “hurrying children into adulthood”. Instead, they help their 60-plus pupils – who range from infants to 12-year-olds – make the most of their childhood experience and develop into creative, active, thoughtful, caring citizens.
Child observation, intuition and healthy relationships are key values of Steiner schools. A typical day in Aurora’s primary classes (ages seven to 12) begins with a handshake from the teacher for each individual pupil followed by a warm-up activity, then a session involving music or verse. Students then focus on a main lesson – anything from geography to a science topic.
The school’s pursuit of excellence is not outcomes-based. “We celebrate mastering skills,” says Goodlet, “taking risks, being healthy and making meaningful contributions to the school environment and local community.” Aurora welcomes students from an array of backgrounds, from those with special educational needs to high academic achievers. Incentives or rewards are not offered for meeting an outcome; neither are punishments meted out for not participating in school. Instead, students and their families are offered the chance to join a “healthy community” where the children are both respected and valued as individuals.
By way of example, in its 2016 scholarship programme, Aurora accepted nine Aboriginal pupils, including some who had struggled with school attendance and engagement. “Attendance was an important part of their contract,” says Goodlet, “but we didn’t offer them bribes or treats. What we did was give them a warm welcome, and a firm, fun, fair and focused learning environment.” The results have been impressive. Attendance rates were 90 per cent or above in the first year, well above Aboriginal pupil attendance elsewhere. The school has continued with the programme and more students are interested in future enrolment. “We were unsure about our capacity to meet their needs,” says Goodlet, “but we wanted to help and it’s proved a success.”
A sense of purpose
Encouraging a sense of purpose is important at Aurora. The curriculum gives students a sense of reverence by integrating challenging adventures, solution-focused activities and academic inquiry. The school has a “seed-to-table” programme, whereby relationships are developed with local growers, and students are involved with composting, gardening and food preparation. A nutritionist is employed to give gardening lessons and cook the meals, which are mainly plant-based, although organic meat is provided by local farms. This pioneering initiative has meant that children and staff receive a well-balanced meal every day. “It was daunting, but we realised unhealthy diets weren’t helping with learning,” says Goodlet. “It was the children who were key drivers for this programme. They were very engaged and supportive. The meals are nutritious and delicious.”
Looking to the future, Goodlet is considering establishing a high school. In the same way as the school’s initiatives have come about at Aurora, his approach will be to let plans develop through talking to people and getting ideas. It will develop naturally and organically, like the vegetables grown on the school land – and the children who help tend and consume them.