Montessori schools are based on the philosophy of an Italian medical doctor, Maria Montessori, who early in the last century devised an educational system to work with what she saw as children's natural urge for development.
She believed that children should be responsible for their own learning, and that the teacher's role was to encourage and guide this, not issue instructions and punishments. She also believed that children are receptive to different areas of learning at different times in their lives and that it is important to harness these windows of opportunity to allow them to develop their language and other skills.
What you will see in a Montessori nursery is children of all ages choosing activities they want to work at from an array of special, child-sized equipment, which encourages them to practise everyday skills and solve problems. Much of it also helps to develop sensory perceptions. Children might use a ball of beads to "feel" the difference between a hundred and a thousand, or learn to count by putting spindles in boxes.
Such schools usually have a calm and tidy atmosphere, and it's easy to see why parents are drawn to them, especially because research from across the Atlantic indicates that Montessori-started children go on to become responsible and self-motivated pupils as they move through school. However, some educators say that the system puts too little emphasis on relationships, and worry that it can promote an adult-defined work ethic, without encouraging creative play.
More important, not all "Montessori" schools are what they say they are. There are half-hearted Montessori schools, and those that use the name but not the philosophy. Also, many parents seize onto the label without having a clue what it means. Montessori education is very fashionable in certain circles. But Montessori schools are like all schools - everything depends not only on what is done, but how. Check out this miracle nursery by all means, but remember to look past the label, to the quality of the teachers and their relationship with their pupils, at how well-rounded the education is, and to whether you think the atmosphere will suit your children.
My children thrived in a Montessori nursery in America. When we returned to London, they found the large primary school they joined noisy and stressful, and during the first term they both sometimes came home in tears. But they had the confidence to adjust, and later went on to do well through secondary school and university. I'm sure their Montessori start was a major reason for their success.
Mary Halburg, Surrey
Today's mothers seem so ambitious for their children. As a teacher, I know this goes on right through school. You need to learn from the beginning how to stand apart and make your own decisions or you will always be feeling anxious. Look carefully at your options and reassure your children that whatever school you chose for them will be right.
Nina Linden-Williams, London SE18
You choose a nursery school by going and looking at it. Until you do that, you cannot have a clue whether what people say about it is right. Their ideas might be very different from yours. Also, you need to remember that if it is as good as they say, it will be popular and you may not be able to get your children into it, so you need to have a back-up. Also, presumably it's private. Can you afford it, and do you really want to spend the money?
Carol Stevenson, Staffordshire
Next week's quandary
My 10-year-old has a new primary school teacher who seems to be playing recorded music all the time. He says she plays it first thing in the morning, and often when they are working. Sometimes it is pop and sometimes classical. Surely this is distracting to the children and something most parents try to discourage at home? Should we complain?
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 20 September, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraserReuse content