Prince George’s first day at nursery shone a spotlight on a teaching movement unfamiliar to many. But does the Montessori method deserve its reputation as the preserve of middle-class children?
When the young prince arrived at the £33-a-day Westacre Montessori School in Norfolk last week, he perhaps reinforced perceptions of the movement as being for those with extra lunch money at their disposal.
However, the system, conceived by Italy’s first female doctor at the turn of the 20th Century, emerged from the slums of Rome, where Dr Maria Montessori visited children with special needs who were confined to asylums.
She believed adults had to “help the child to act, will and think” for themselves, and that their most formative phase was before the age of seven.
After being appointed as a professor of anthropology, she was eventually asked to take charge of a centre for young children. And so, in 1907, the first school using her child-centred methods of independent learning was opened in inner-city Rome
Since then, Montessori schools have spread worldwide, from Argentina to Thailand.
In the UK, there are about 700 establishments, but only four schools are state-funded.
When Manchester’s Gorton Mount Primary – once described as a “much-challenged” environment – introduced the system to its nursery in 2005, many talked about how Montessori “came home”.
The area was noted as among “the top 10% most deprived” in the country by Manchester City Council a few years ago.
“Many of our children receive pupil premium funding and free school meals,” says Clare Niederbuhl, who works at Gorton Mount, which is the first state-funded Montessori establishment in the UK.
Prior to adopting the method, the school had a reputation for being “terrible” with “seven heads in six years”, according to former head teacher Carol Powell in a 2013 interview.
But its performance has now turned around to the extent that two Ofsted reports have rated it as good.
- Children are natural learners who, if left to follow their instincts, will want to constantly explore the world
- Therefore teachers tend to guide and observe students, rather than control their learning
- Each child is encouraged to think for themselves, work at their own pace and develop their independence – there are no grades or tests
- Classrooms will have different areas where children can play or practice their reading and maths
- Hands-on “sensorial” resources are used as Prof Montessori believed most of a child’s learning comes through the senses
Gorton Mount’s longest-serving teacher Sue Corner – whose grand-daughter was among the first Montessori pupils at the school – noticed children became a lot more “motivated” as they started using hands-on Montessori materials for literacy and numeracy.
“Because a lot of the children come from a low-income area, it was all bright and new, and it was also accessible because it was so simple,” she said.
Ms Niederbuhl explains: “In the classroom, there will be a lot of things that you would typically associate with mainstream nursery and reception, so for example there will be sand, water, painting and construction areas.”
But in a Montessori nursery, children will also get to grips with “sensorial materials” – such as building pink towers – because, she adds, “Montessori described them as pre-mathematical so there’s a lot of sorting, comparing, ordering and classifying.”
There is also a focus on “everyday living” skills, including “pouring water, transferring with tongs, sweeping up and mopping up spillages”.
Ms Niederbuhl, who originally worked in mainstream education before training in Montessori methods, believes the biggest difference between them is the latter’s emphasis on freedom and independence, which encourages children to learn at their own pace and repeat things until they become familiar.
“You’ll notice there’s a lack of teachers’ desks as everything is for the child, so the child is free to choose the work that they would like to use and engage with it for as long as they see fit.
“The other thing is that each child is considered as an individual so, rather than the teacher planning for the whole class, they consider each individual child – and each child on the planning sheet will have targets of maths and literacy they’re working on.”