At Ipswich’s Meadows Montessori Primary Schools everyone is on first-name terms, there is no homework and no-one sits SATs
There’s no shortage of Montessori pre-schools across the UK but studies show the approach has much to offer older pupils too.
So why are Montessori schools for primary-aged children and beyond so hard to come by and how might our children’s lives be enhanced by them? Sheena Grant reports
It’s almost seven years since Sam Sims took a leap of faith and set up a Montessori primary school.
She’d run a successful nursery, in Tuddenham Road, Ipswich, since 2002, and had grown used to parents asking her to take the next step so their children didn’t have to leave Montessori methods behind at age five. “There was quite a while where I listened but didn’t do anything about it,” she says. “Then a small cohort of parents approached me and persuaded me it was a good idea. We got some mobile buildings next to the nursery, obtained permission and opened with 10 children.”
Over the next four years the school grew to the point where Sam was having to turn children away. “We had to make a decision if we were going to stay very little or move and go to the next stage,” she says.
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Once again, she took the plunge and in September 2013 an expanded Meadows Montessori Primary School opened in its current setting, Larchcroft Road, Ipswich. It now has 60 pupils, aged up to 11, who call staff by their first names, don’t get homework and certainly don’t do SATS. The Montessori approach is pupil-centred, with children having access to a range of special educational materials that allow them to learn through their own investigations. They develop at their own pace and are encouraged to bring their own interests into the classroom. A few youngsters recently built a combustion engine after expressing an interest in how the technology worked.
In fact, Montessori education is so child-centred that, often, pupils in the same class can be working on many different projects. In some subjects, they are given tasks to complete and allowed to manage their own time and workload.
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Research suggests that the approach, developed in the early 1900s by Dr Maria Montessori to educate poor children in her native Italy, reaps dividends. In 2006 US psychologists found that children at Montessori schools out-performed those who have a more traditional education. Five-year-old pupils were better prepared for reading and maths, while those aged 12 wrote significantly more creative essays. Some of the biggest differences were in social skills and behaviour.
That’s no surprise to Sam Sims, who has seen the benefits of a Montessori education not just in other people’s children but in her own. Her two older children went to state schools while her youngest is a pupil at the Meadows. “My eldest has commented before about how much my youngest seems to like going to school and likes learning,” she says. “They can see the difference.”
But any parent who wants their child to experience a Montessori education beyond pre-school will face a problem: there just aren’t many schools that offer it and, of those that do, most, like the Meadows, are fee-paying. A limited number of state primaries have introduced it, with positive results. These include Stebbing Primary School in Essex, where the system has been embedded from reception to year six. What has evolved, says the school, is a broad, balanced curriculum in a Montessori setting, leading to independent learners taking responsibility for themselves.
Sam Sims says the Meadows’ fees (£2,000 a term) are more affordable than most independent schools but admits that for many they will be out of reach. “I would love not to have to charge but I wouldn’t have enough faith in the system (to go down the free school route),” she says. “Parents are more savvy now and are starting to think there are other options than state education or even most independent schools.
“The UK has been a bit slow as far as Montessori is concerned. If you look at the US and many other countries across Europe there are lots of places. Many go right through to high school. Starting a school in this country is difficult, financially and because of red tape.
“Montessori suits many children who don’t quite tick the boxes for the state system. I’m not talking about children with special educational needs but children who learn in a different way. We have a lot of children who would have struggled with the conveyor belt lessons of the state system. We allow children to be individuals. Their interests spill into lessons. We allow children to become independent in their learning, to make choices about what they learn and when.”
Pupils have a three-hour morning lesson, which lets them concentrate for longer. Work is set by journal and they manage their own time. Staff work by observation ? there are no tests but assessment is ongoing.
“The nurturing side of Montessori is huge,” says Sam. “There is a focus on building up children’s self-esteem. We work hard at children wanting to do well for themselves.”
Parents are allowed to bring children right into the classroom and children are taught in mixed age groups so they learn at a pace that is right for them. “Some children need a bit more time to cement something in. We make sure the foundations of their learning are sound,” says Sam. “Often, an observer would struggle to see the teacher in the classroom. Most teaching is done one-to-one or in small groups.”
The universal aspect of Montessori means the same classroom learning materials are used worldwide, allowing children to understand something visually before going to the abstract. The Meadows marries the National Curriculum and the Montessori curriculum to create an education that is definitely alternative. Fridays, for instance, are dress down days, when the whole school spends time outdoors, doing team-building activities and camp-fire cooking. “Those days are the draw for a huge percentage of our parents,” says Sam.
Kayleigh Hard, deputy head teacher, says many parents choose the school because they don’t like targets and tests. However, the school’s approach hasn’t always been fully understood by Ofsted, which in 2013 gave it an adequate rating overall, citing shortcomings in record keeping and tracking. “They didn’t understand how Montessori works,” says Sam. “But parents were confident in what we are doing. Next time, we’ll be in a better position to present our case more effectively.”
Some pupils have never known anything but Montessori while others have joined after unhappy experiences elsewhere. “It can take a term for them to relax and realise it’s OK to be at school again,” says Sam. “Children from elsewhere often can’t make decisions for themselves. Our first priority is to get them happy again.”
Much of that unhappiness, she believes, is driven by Government pressure. “The Government assumes every child learns in the same way, at the same time. In many European countries children go to school much later ? and achieve better results overall. We don’t give homework either. Children need to go home and just be children.”
Although the teacher is not the dominant person in a Montessori setting, discipline still matters. Issues are resolved quickly and children encouraged to talk about any problems. Years five and six have a weekly meeting, where any issues of concern are addressed.
At the end of primary school, most pupils rejoin the state sector. Montessori high schools are very rare. “They go confidently, having been prepared really well,” says Sam. And while she’s often asked to extend the provision to high school, Sam says she definitely won’t be going down that route, however persuasive the parents.
For more information visit www.themeadowsmontessori.com