Education: Where children learn to count on themselves: The image of Montessori schools as hothouses for the middle classes is misleading, writes Diana Hinds

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HOLIDAY-MAKERS passing the sign to Strid Cottage Montessori School, deep in the Yorkshire dales, have often been heard to remark: 'Oh Montessori - that's where the children do whatever they want.'

That is just one of the popular misconceptions about the Montessori method. If such passers-by were to step inside the pretty stone cottage called the 'Children's House' they would probably be surprised to find an atmosphere of calm and concentration, where children as young as two-and-a-half are going about their chosen tasks with a quiet single-mindedness. There are no toys strewn across the floor and there is none of the shrieking and charging about that you would find in many playgroups. Even the teachers - or 'directresses' - are whispering to the children.

Another more damaging misconception is that Montessori schools are academic hothouses designed for the children of aspiring middle-class parents. This could not be further from what Maria Montessori, Italy's first woman doctor of medicine, intended when she developed her approach in the early years of this century from her work with deprived and neglected children in the slums of Rome.

Her aim was to encourage children to become free-thinking 'independent learners' and to foster their physical, emotional and social development, as well as their intellectual development. She soon found that an approach that worked with deprived children worked equally well with others.

Unfortunately, Montessori education in Britain has tended to be restricted to middle-class children, whose families can afford the fees of between pounds 500 and pounds 900 a term; the schools receive no state subsidy, as they do, for instance, in Holland, Italy and parts of the United States.

A further little-known fact about the Montessori philosophy is that it was never intended to be confined to nursery-age children. Dr Montessori also made detailed recommendations for the education of six- to 12-year- olds. Strid Cottage School, at Bolton Abbey, north Yorkshire, is one of the few Montessori schools in Britain to have extended its intake to this age group, in response to repeated requests from parents. An 'elementary' department was set up in Barden Old School last September, a mile up the road from Strid Cottage, and is attended by 14 older children.

Central to the Montessori philosophy is the realisation that all children have an inborn motivation to learn and to be independent. They pass through 'sensitive periods', in which they are particularly responsive to certain things: for instance, sensitivity to order, in the first two to three years, when children respond to things being done in the familiar way; sensitivity to language, from birth to six; sensitivity to small objects, from about one. Dr Montessori reasoned that if adults are aware of these sensitive periods, they would be more likely to enhance the child's development and not restrict it.

She attached great importance to the connection between the brain and movement. Children learn by active participation, she maintained, and by attempting to do things by themselves, particularly by using their hands. At Strid Cottage, therefore, one room is devoted to 'practical life' activities. On the wall are frames on which children can practise doing up buttons, zips or bows.

Neatly arranged on low shelves are assorted containers of lentils, bolts, or peas, small glass jugs of water and carrots for peeling. The children wander in and help themselves, putting everything away when they have finished and sweeping up any mess. One little girl, kneeling at a low table, spends more than 10 minutes painstakingly lifting peas out of a saucer with a pair of tweezers and balancing them on a rubber soap mat, a look of complete absorption on her face.

In the next room, half a dozen children are sitting on the floor with a teacher, investigating the diameters of a series of coloured wooden cylinders by placing them on top of each other and testing with their fingers for a smooth join. These cylinders are part of the special equipment of Montessori schools, along with multi-coloured tablets, wooden jigsaws of the countries of Europe (the children are encouraged to learn the countries by feel, while blindfolded), and large sandpaper letters that help the children to associate sound with shape.

But although these learning aids are important, Montessori experts say teachers sometimes adhere to them too rigidly. A further problem, according to Jethryn Hall at the Maria Montessori Training Organisation in London, is that some nursery schools now buy the equipment and call themselves Montessori, without having fully understood the ethos and without the specially-trained staff.

In other respects, the children at Strid Cottage do what other nursery- age children do - paint dribbly pictures on easels, sing songs, look at books and run about outside at playtime. They are introduced to phonics - the system of sounding out words - and Jane Lord, who runs both Strid Cottage and Barden Old School, says that most of them are reading quite well by the age of five.

Up the road at the 'elementary' class, the atmosphere is rather different. There is more noise - Dr Montessori recognised that children of six and upwards are naturally more social - and more group work, with older children sometimes helping the younger ones. But the pupils are still encouraged to be self-directing, choosing how to divide their time between different subjects, and morning playtime is sacrificed in order not to break their concentration.

Mrs Lord says the school is careful to meet the requirements of the national curriculum, and science is taught much as it would be in a state primary. In maths, as at Strid Cottage, much use is made of special Montessori materials, such as bead frames, geometric shapes and bead chains. Pauline Smith, the directress, says this enables the children to be introduced to mathematical processes and concepts, like long multiplication, long division and square roots, at an earlier age. 'When they then move on to more abstract work they have a deep understanding of the processes involved, which makes it easier.'

In geography and history the Montessori emphasis is on fitting things into their wider, global context. In English, grammar is seen as centrally important, and the children act out games that teach them about nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions. 'It makes them better writers; it gives them the keys to knowing how to use language,' says Mrs Smith.

Ideally, Mrs Smith and Mrs Lord would like about 20 children at the elementary level, dividing them into two age groups instead of having them all in one class. Some parents have chosen not to send their children on to Barden Old School from Strid Cottage, and Mrs Lord says parents are often concerned about whether a Montessori education up to the age of 11 or 12 will make it difficult for a child to fit into mainstream education.

But Roger Kennedy, head teacher at Upper Wharfedale Secondary Modern School, near Skipton, said he had been impressed with what he had seen at the elementary department, and did not envisage that the pupils would have any problems integrating at secondary level.

'Because the Montessori approach caters for the development of individual strengths, it does create a very adaptable child,' said Mrs Lord. 'It creates a well-balanced child, who is armoured to cope with change.'

The Montessori Society, 071-435 7874.

(Photograph omitted)