A school in a valley, between heaven and earth

| September 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Elaine Davie

Here, for the past 60 years, nestled in a green fold in the hills, Camphill School has provided love, care, education and acceptance to generations of children with severe intellectual disabilities. The school was established on Dawn Farm in 1952, thanks to the titanic efforts of an ordinary woman with extraordinary vision and determination. As the mother of an intellectually impaired son, Robert, May Redman set about trying to identify a school that would provide quality care, education and respect for her special child.

Camphill Estate – a place of caring in Scotland

Meanwhile, far away in Scotland, lived another visionary, Karl König, a physically disabled Jewish refugee. He had fled Austria just before Nazi Germany’s Anschluss1 swallowed up his country and the systematic decimation of the Jewish population began. A student of his renowned compatriot, the educationist Rudolf Steiner, he had special empathy for all those rejected by society. In Scotland he was offered a safe haven on Camphill Estate, near Aberdeen. Together with other Rudolf Steiner philosophy disciples, he started a community committed to providing residential care for children with intellectual disabilities.

The driving principle behind their project was the notion that, irrespective of their physical disabilities, each child was a perfect spiritual being, deserving of love and respect. While Hitler concentrated on destroying anyone perceived as a fouling his concept of genetic purity, König focused on the unique qualities and potential of each special needs child, believing that in so doing, he and his colleagues would contribute to creating a new and more humane society.

Dawn Farm developed into Camphill School and Farm Community

One day, back in Hermanus, happening by chance upon an article about Dr König’s Rudolf Steiner-based community in Scotland, May Redman was instantly convinced that this was just what her son Robert needed – not in Scotland, but right here, near her home in Hermanus, South Africa. And so began a long and fruitful relationship with König. It was not an easy task she set herself, but May was nothing if not tenacious.

With help from friends and family, she managed to buy the run-down Dawn Farm, perhaps significantly a former leper colony, and scrounged sufficient furniture and utensils to equip the old farmhouse. In 1952, with two pupils and a teacher from Camphill, Scotland, the first Rudolf Steiner School in South Africa was launched. After a visit from König, who had sent his eldest daughter Renate there as a co-worker, the school on Dawn Farm was welcomed into the wider Camphill movement in 1957.

Subsequently, a separate entity, the Camphill Farm Community for intellectually disabled adults, was established adjacent to the school – a logical extension of the children’s programme. Today the school and farm communities are among more than 100 Camphill communities across the globe.2

Camphill cares for the intellectually challenged

Currently, Camphill School Hermanus provides residential and non-residential care and education for 50 intellectually challenged children and young people of both genders, aged from eight to 21 years. In the third term of 2012, it is anticipated that a kindergarten will be added, extending the age range still further.

We steadfastly maintain the core Rudolf Steiner ethos of respect and appreciation for the human dignity of the individual child and the desire to develop each one’s unique potential. Over time, the Camphill curriculum has been adapted to local circumstances, however, and although it includes principles of Waldorf education, it now also incorporates elements of the South African national education department’s curriculum for special needs children.3

In addition to teaching basic competence in the three Rs (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) – depending on individual capacity – there is a strong emphasis on practical skills like baking, as well as creative expression through hands-on activities such as arts and crafts, storytelling, music and movement. The students in the upper school participate in vocational and life skills workshops, in preparation for the world of work.

Apart from the educational needs of the children, the school aims to provide a range of complementary therapies: from art, horse riding and eurhythmy, to speech, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Sadly, due to severe financial constraints, many of these therapies have had to be curtailed.

Because many of the children require one-on-one attention, the staff complement is large. In line with general Camphill practice, the school makes use of voluntary co-workers, many from overseas, who spend a minimum of a year there, living in the residential houses with the children and assisting in the classrooms.

Many special needs children to care for

About 78% of the school’s learners are drawn from local disadvantaged communities, with the residential learners generally coming from further afield. The families of the learners from poor communities are unable to come anywhere close to covering the annual full school fees of between R2 500 and R 7 700, with the result that they are heavily subsidised by Camphill. The Western Cape department of basic education (WCED) subsidy covers only about 20% of the school’s budget.

It has been estimated by the WCED that there are in excess of 1 440 special needs children requiring high-level support in the vast Overberg educational district. Apart from Camphill, there is only one other small special needs school in the area.

Bearing this in mind, the school hopes to find additional funding to enable it to act as a resource for the wider community, identifying stay-at-home children with special needs and providing information and support to the families and some form of stimulation for the children.

Camphill is proud of its long history of caring for, educating and offering love and acceptance to the special children who are generally to be found at the bottom of the social order. Like König, it is the school’s hope that its work in the Hermanus and greater Overberg region is making a small but significant contribution to a more humane society.


1. The Anschluss, also known as the Anschluss Österreichs, was the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. (Source: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hitlerannounces- an-anschluss-with-austria.)

2. Camphill communities provide opportunities for children, young people and adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other special needs to live, learn and work together with others in an atmosphere of mutual respect and equality. There are more than 100 Camphill communities in over 20 countries in Europe, North America, southern Africa and India, where those with special needs are offered the support they need to develop their potential. In addition to caring for each other, those who make their lives at Camphill centres care for the land and the environment around them by following organic and biodynamic principles in their gardens and on their farms, recycling and using environmentally friendly products and services whenever possible. See http://www.camphill.net/.

3. See, for example, http://www.info.gov.za/whitepapers/2001/educ6.pdf.

Category: Spring 2012

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