Fit for a prince? Montessori schools tackle 'middle-class' image
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 one of Italy's first female doctors 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.
The Montessori approach
- 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."
The scarcity of free Montessori nurseries prompted Becky Kerr to move closer so her two daughters could attend.
She says she noticed a difference in their development "straightaway".
"They're counting in 10s, hundreds and thousands at ages three and four."
Mine Alpar, whose children also attend the school, was concerned about how moving home twice had affected her son, who had become "bored" at a previous nursery.
But since attending Gorton Mount nursery, she says it's "like someone's opened a magic door" that has boosted his confidence.
Reality v fantasy
However, some people have been critical of Montessori nurseries, saying there isn't enough scope for imaginative play or they're too quiet with not enough toys.
While the children at Gorton Mount seem active enough, Ms Niederbuhl admits Montessori classrooms can be relatively quiet. She explains it's "because the children are demonstrating that deep level of concentration - they're interested in what they're doing and they're getting on with it".
"However, there are a lot of social games because at the age of about three, Montessori believed that's when the child is becoming less ego-centric and dipping into the social ways of life."
Based on her observations, Prof Montessori believed children wanted to do real things in a real world, rather than just pretend.
She saw a difference between imagination rooted in reality, which was considered as truly creative, and that based on fantasy, i.e. non-real events. As a consequence, Montessori schools tend to emphasise work with real objects and situations.
Chris McGovern, from the Campaign for Real Education, believes the method "can work well with younger children" but its success depends on properly-trained teachers.
"It is more structured than many commentators and parents realise. Sadly, the term 'Montessori' is too often used to disguise unstructured play activities that places the teacher in the role of supervisor or child-minder rather than mentor."
But Ms Kerr said the methodology will help Prince George: "It'll give him a great start. It really does set the foundation for everything because these are the formative years of life."
Who was Maria Montessori?
- Born in 1870 in Italy, Maria Montessori is considered an influential innovator of classroom practices for young children
- She became one of the first female doctors in Italy in 1896 and was appointed as professor of anthropology eight years later
- As part of her work, she visited children living in asylums, and believed that many of their problems were not medical-related, but of an educational nature
- In 1936, she moved to the Netherlands, where she died in 1952
- Famous Montessori students include Anne Frank, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Sources: Montessori.org and ami-global.org