Waldorf schools are self-governing, independent educational communities involving parents and teachers who manage the school's resources and set priorities in the best interests of the pupils. In an age characterised by the breakdown of the family, social disorientation and the alienation between the generations, a Waldorf school becomes a focus for collective endeavour as well as for partnership with local communities and with the environment.
What does the word autonomy mean in relation to a Waldorf school? Every Waldorf School is an organism in its own right, in its own unique form. Frequently starting from the initiative of parents, schools grow out of a given social and cultural environment. Parents are often people whose children are about to reach school age. They are convinced that this kind of education is the right one for their children. A school organism of this kind starts from below, from the needs of the children.
Each new school must also adopt a legal form which is shaped by and adapted to the requirements of the state or local administration. This legal framework should document the school's autonomy and gives it its rightful place in the world around it. From the moment lessons actually begin, a differentiated "inner autonomy" begins to take shape. Its existence will continually be challenged. This inner autonomy encompasses the social structure, the economy, and, last but not least, the educational. Therefore, the individuals and the groups of people engaged in the working of the school are involved in each of these in different ways.
In the field of social structuring, parents and teachers work together, finding the right constitution for the school and a day-to-day system of running its affairs. Where economic questions are concerned, parents are the deciding factor. This is especially true in countries where independent schools receive no financial support whatever from local or state government. A further field of inner autonomy is the salary scale which the staff give themselves, sharing out the means at the school's disposal according to the social criteria they have determined upon.
And finally we come to the autonomy in the educational field. This appears on a number of levels. There is the autonomy of the individual colleague in determining the form of his or her teaching. There is the autonomy of those teachers who are working with one particular class, also the autonomy of the staff as a whole in how they are going to shape the specific school they are working in – here, parents' participation is indispensable – from the timetable, the length of lessons etc. to the way the Waldorf curriculum is going to be put into practice. In order to deal with questions of this sort, permanent re-evaluation and further training will be required.
It will easily be seen that autonomy cannot be spoken of in this context without at the same time thinking of its complement: responsibility. Responsibility, of the group and of the individual, is the essential element within the school organism and outside it and within the community of the many Waldorf schools around the world, but also within the area where the school is situated. Autonomy is not an aim in itself. It is a condition for the education of young people. The development of free personalities within the developing children is very hard to aim at where rules and regulations tend to give a uniform shape to the school system of an entire nation, experiments both in communist and in fascist dictatorships serve to make this perfectly plain.