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The History and Development of the Friends of Waldorf Education

(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 12-17, Note the Copyright!)

In truth, however, the school movement is something greater and something that is a totality in itself ...

In dealing with questions of education and culture one is directly called upon to work at building up the social future...

We need to create a “school for the future” which is founded overall on what is relevant for human beings, on freedom, and on what is required for the social organism as a whole.


Founded by Ernst Weissert

The fiftieth anniversary of Waldorf Education was celebrated in 1969. The Waldorf School movement of that time has been described in the books “Education Towards Freedom”1 by Arne Klingborg and Frans Carlgren and “Learning without auxiety, acting consciously”2 by Christoph Lindenberg. The atmosphere these works expressed was one of new beginnings and a reaffirmation of the social tasks to be tackled by this education. On 10 October 1971, as the movement expanded and became more international, the association Friends of Waldorf Education was founded in the realization that such a movement would need a wider circle of friends, a living community around it providing a basis in society as a whole.

This realization was expressed as follows in the initial appeal for members: “In the 1920s the [first] Waldorf School was carried by a wide circle of supporters spread across the whole of Germany. That Association for Independent Education encompassed many local groups even before people began to think about founding other schools in addition to the one in Stuttgart. The ‘old’ Waldorf teachers were happy to travel as far afield as Elbing and Danzig to give talks about Rudolf Steiner’s art of education and the idea of an independent education system, and also, indeed, about an independent cultural life as such. We remember with gratitude the faithful helpers in the towns where we lectured who collected members’ contributions and sent them off to Stuttgart.”

After 1945, school communities formed wherever a Waldorf School re-opened or where a new one was to be founded, although because of the division of Germany into zones of occupation these groups remained rather local in character, taking care not to tread on one another’s toes. “In truth, however, the school movement is something greater and something that is a totality in itself ... Its new tasks can no longer be handled by local school associations and colleges of teachers alone ... More and more people are concerned about who is responsible and who shares in the management. In this sense the Waldorf School movement as a whole seems to us to present a unique realm of collaboration. In dealing with questions of education and culture one is directly called upon to work at building up the social future ... We need to create a ‘school for the future’ which is founded overall on what is relevent for human beings, on freedom, and on what is required for the social organism as a whole. This new association represents a movement that is working for an independent education system, for an autonomous life of culture in general and for schools that are relevant for the future.”

Ernst Weissert wanted to bring together a circle of individuals who, in addition to the above, would also find financial support for the movement as it grew both in Germany and internationally. Weissert became Member No.1, and the next greatest helper was Dr Manfred Leist, Member No. 2. The mainly organizational tasks fitted in well with the work the latter was involved in at that time. In addition to working with Herbert Greif, the manager of the Federation of Independent Waldorf Schools, he was also working with Weissert at the legal management and with Helmut von Kügelgen as an associate editor on the journal “Erziehungskunst”. Other helpers who joined were Günter Ziegenbein (member of the board of the Stuttgart Kräherwald Waldorf School) and Armin Scholter, the business manager of that school. This group proved a capable team as the board of management of the new association. A considerable number of former pupils of the Stuttgart Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School joined and in some cases remain members to this day. Ernst Weissert and Manfred Leist, however, each had taxing work to do in building up the school movement in Germany and on the board of the Federation of Independent Waldorf Schools, so that they had little time to spare for the new seedling.

In 1976 a group of young people who had recently finished their schooldays at various Waldorf Schools in Germany, Netherlands and Britain approached Ernst Weissert with the idea of founding a worldwide association of Waldorf Schools. He took this up and offered them the Friends of Waldorf Education as their legal set-up. Looking back now it seems astonishing and admirable that Weissert seemingly so readily handed over the business of the association to a group of 21-year-olds. But at the time it appeared the obvious thing to do, and the young people seized the opportunity. On the initiative of Andreas Büttner, Christa Büttner, Nana Göbel, Jean-Claude Lin, Andreas Maurer and Paul Vink the International Fund was then set up as a part of the Friends of Waldorf Education. Under the guidance of Ernst Weissert there thus arose a long-term highly fruitful collaboration of those former pupils with Manfred Leist and Herbert Greif. Step by step the new shared field of work expanded as the former pupils gradually came to work entirely independently. Until his death in 1981 Ernst Weissert remained the “father” of the work, appreciated and respected by everyone, while Manfred Leist and Herbert Greif continued as before to accompany their younger colleagues for a good many more years.

One after another, several members of that generation took over the business management: Andreas Büttner, Justus Wittich, Christian Schulz, Winfried Tauer, Bernd Ruf and Nana Göbel. What was their idea? To create in the future an education system in which those engaged in the teaching process would be able to shape their teaching and lessons independently without any interference from the state and, furthermore, not to limit such a development to Western Europe alone. In addition the aim was to support Waldorf Education in countries where no state funds were available and to ensure that children whose parents could not afford to pay fees would be able to attend the schools.

The International Fund

Founded in 1976, the International Fund receives donations which are used to fund kindergartens and schools as well as curative establishments and training workshops. Active support by very many individuals and organizations has meant that the scale of help given has continued to grow. Up to the year 2000 the grand total raised and given to Waldorf Schools and kindergartens as well as curative establishments outside Germany amounted to DM 67 million (see Graph 1). The donations can be shown geographically, the emphasis having varied depending on the changing historical needs of the different regions at any one time (see Graph 2). The percentage of support given in the various regions is shown in Graphs 4 and 5.

Apart from a few exceptions, the Waldorf School movement did not really begin to spread beyond Germany until the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the descriptions in this book show. The tasks of Friends of Waldorf Education grew enormously in keeping with this expansion, e.g. in South America. And after 1989 a whole new school movement began in Central and Eastern Europe which is still confronting us with considerable challenges. The idea of independent schools caught on there with lightning speed while kindergartens and schools immediately began to spring up. In the final phase of growth in the twentieth century the first pioneering schools were established in Asia during the mid-1990s.

Throughout its existence, Friends of Waldorf Education has always made sure that in addition to schools and kindergartens it has supported curative establishments, social initiatives and the relevant training courses as well (See Graph 3).

The support given has expanded geographically from year to year from Western Europe via the USA to South America, and then to Southern Africa and finally Eastern Europe and Asia. There have been shifts of emphasis in the fields of work supported. Thus initially funds were mostly needed to help foreign student teachers train in Germany while European lecturers required assistance for their travels in other countries. Then gradually Friends of Waldorf Education were asked for help in financing the purchase of land and buildings, which has since come to account for a large proportion of funds and can only be tackled in collaboration with other partners. This dual gesture is characteristic of our work to this day: on the one hand to support the training of individuals and on the other to secure the physical existence of schools and curative establishments.

International collaboration

As the school movement grows, and with it the range of tasks facing the Friends of Waldorf Education, there is an increasing need to seek collaboration with similar institutions, with foundations, with national associations and international federations.

Through members of the founding group the Internationaal Hulpfonds was set up in the Netherlands as early on as 1978. A good while later came similar efforts in Switzerland through the Acacia Association and in Denmark through Sanduko a Ndege. We meet regularly with these and other partners to exchange information, coordinate the help we give, make plans and discuss perspectives of international collaboration. While Sanduko a Ndege concentrates mainly on Africa, the International Association for Waldorf Education in Eastern Europe (IAO) directs its attention to educational advice and training in the countries of eastern Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Collaboration between those who provide financial aid and those who give educational advice has proved exceedingly helpful. There is therefore also close collaboration with the Education Section at the Goetheanum in Switzerland in its role as the worldwide collaborative body of Waldorf teachers, and with the Assembly for Curative Education and Social Therapy at the Goetheanum which represents anthroposophical curative education worldwide. There are similar close ties with the International Association of Waldorf Kindergartens and the Federation of Independent Waldorf Schools in Germany.

Dealing with financial aid can carry the risk of egoistic motives becoming involved. The most important in-built means of avoiding this is collaboration with as many partners as possible since this helps achieve the greatest transparency and objectivity in the allocation of funds as well as close collaboration with the national partner in question. The Friends of Waldorf Education have always endeavoured to include the national associations in the promotion of a specific school since this builds up an overall awareness of the financial situation of individual establishments in a specific country. Partnership rather than competition seems to us to be the appropriate way to solve financial questions. On the other hand, competition is appropriate when it is a matter of establishing a school’s profile and achieving educational qualification.

Public financing of Waldorf Schools outside Germany

As the Waldorf School movement and the curative education movement expanded it became increasingly difficult to finance the work from the sources hitherto tapped: private donations and support from foundations. The search was on for new ways. It is possible to finance building projects with considerable help from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and good use has been made of this opportunity since 1987. To date 16 projects have been financed in collaboration with the Ministry: in South Africa(3), Romania(4), Georgia(1), Russia(1), Kyrgyzstan(1), Brazil(2), Chile(1), Ghana(1), India(1), Vietnam(1). The Ministry contributes 75% of the costs, e.g. for primary school buildings, so donations can be quadrupled and thus used far more efficiently. We are tremendously grateful for this possibility even though it always challenges our own administrative capabilities.

The 1994 exhibition “Waldorf Education”

The invitation from UNESCO to present Waldorf Education to an international public during its 1994 International Conference on Education, which at that time was a biennial meeting of education ministers of all UNESCO member states, proved to be a milestone in the work of the Friends of Waldorf Education. With the then Director General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, as its patron the exhibition afterwards toured a number of Asian countries, which assuredly contributed to this education becoming better known in Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and India. The exhibition has also been shown in various German towns as well as in Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Britain, France, Spain and Portugal. The catalogue, entitled Waldorf Education, was handed out during the exhibition. It has meanwhile been translated into 15 languages and is now used worldwide as a suitable introduction to Waldorf Education. The exhibition was followed in 1997 by the film “Awakening To Tomorrow”, our first attempt to help people experience the education as a reality through selected schools in Israel, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and Germany.

Waldorf Education as a partner in international education policy

At the beginning of June 1994 in Sinaia, Romania, the education ministers of Central and Eastern Europe met to discuss what had been achieved thus far in the way of education reform in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The Friends of Waldorf Education were the only non-government organization invited to participate. Valuable contacts were made. Collaboration with UNESCO which had begun during the exhibition in 1994 was taken forward during conversations in 1996 and 1997 with the aim, among others, of drawing the importance of non-state alternatives in education to the attention especially of education politicians. Other activities which contributed to this were collaboration on the report by Jacques Delors, “Learning: The Treasure Within – report to UNESCO of the International Commision on Education for the Twenty-first Century”, UNESCO 1996, or contributions to “Portraits in Courage” and, for example, “Tolerance: The Threshold of Peace” brought out by UNESCO. UNESCO collaboration with individual Waldorf Schools has been growing over the same period, so that there are now 18 schools in various continents that are active members of UNESCO’s network of school projects. In May 2001 during the 161st session of the Executive Board of UNESCO the Friends of Waldorf Education were granted the status of a “Foundation in Official Relations with UNESCO”. We are delighted that the Friends of Waldorf Education, the first body to be set up in support of Waldorf Education, has been awarded recognition by UNESCO in this way.

In November 1996 the Friends of Waldorf Education collaborated with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the IONA Foundation of Amsterdam on a symposium in New Delhi at which representatives of various educational alternatives in India including Waldorf Education met for initial discussions. Exciting parallels with Waldorf Education were discovered in the work initiated by Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo. A follow-on meeting on Waldorf Education at which these insights were taken further came about in New Delhi in November 1998 in collaboration with Germany’s Goethe-Institut.

In May 2000 the Friends of Waldorf Education ran a symposium on Waldorf Education in Sofia in collaboration with the Deutsch-Bulgarisches Forum and the Goethe-Institut. This was the first public event on Waldorf Education in Bulgaria. Although other countries in the region have been establishing Waldorf Schools since 1990, there are only delicate beginnings in Bulgaria, which were nurtured by this event.

International voluntary services

Another field in which the Friends of Waldorf Education have become involved was suggested in 1993 by a former pupil of one of the schools. Young men in Germany face a spell of compulsory military service on leaving school. Alternatively they may apply to work in the community for the specified period. The pupil in question suggested this might be extended to include “alternative service abroad”. Recognition of the Friends of Waldorf Education by the Federal Ministry for Families, Senior Citizens, Social Questions and Youth as a private organizer of such foreign service has meant that 1,200 young men have since participated in this scheme. Meanwhile 150 establishments in 41 countries have been recognized to receive placements through the Friends of Waldorf Education. Caring for people with special needs accounts for the greater part of this work.

Opportunities for young women to work abroad came in 1996 with the establishment of the European Voluntary Service. About 40 young people annually now serve for a year in this programme which is promoted by the EU. Emphasis is mainly on work in kindergartens. In addition, since 2001 the Friends of Waldorf Education have also been arranging for young people from abroad to work in anthroposophical establishments in Germany.


Since the late 1990s the Friends of Waldorf Education have received increasing numbers of requests to enable individual children in countries such as Latvia, Uruguay or South Africa to attend a Waldorf School. As with the very first one, these schools have been intended for children from all sections of society irrespective of parents’ ability to pay fees. Many of the schools maintain bursary funds or operate a system of graded contributions. In developing countries, however, incomes are often so low as to make such schemes unworkable. This situation led to the idea of “education vouchers”. Many individuals or groups of pupils now donate education vouchers to enable disadvantaged children all over the world to participate in an education process that is so essential for any healthy development towards maturity.

The Art of Education Fund in the USA

The Friends of Waldorf Education have had a branch in the USA since the year 2000. Under the management of Jon McAlice, The Art of Education Fund in San Francisco carries on comparable activities in promoting individuals and establishments outside the USA by providing funds. An English-language version of the newsletter currently distributed by the Friends of Waldorf Education is to be brought out in due course.

The Friends of Waldorf Education as an organization

One principle that has been maintained throughout the organization’s 30-year life is that of strict separation between the funds needed to cover its running costs and the donations received for the support of the worldwide education movement. As ever, 100% of all donations is passed on. An organization such as the Friends of Waldorf Education cannot survive without the help of many individuals and establishments who are concerned for its continued existence. The Friends of Waldorf Education could not have survived without the faithful long-term support of its members and of institutions such as the IONA Foundation in Amsterdam, the GTS Communitiy Fund in Bochum, Germany, and, since 1999, the Software AG Foundation in Darmstadt, Germany, as well as other foundations that have continuously supported us. To these individuals and institutions we owe great gratitude and friendship.


1 Frans Carlgren & Arne Klingborg: Education Towards Freedom: Rudolf Steiner Education, Lanthorn Press, 1976.
2 Christoph Lindenberg: Angstfrei lernen, selbstbewusst handeln, Reinbek 1975 (Learning without fear, acting with confidence. German only).

Nana Göbel
b.1955 at Pforzheim, Germany. Studied Classical Archaeology and Egyptology. Faculty member of the Section for the Spiritual Striving of Youth at the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland. Staff member of the Community Bank and the GTS Community Fund at Bochum, Germany. Since 1978 member of the board of the Friends of Waldorf Education, since 1996 its managing director.

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