Montessori: The startling success of progressive teaching methods

The introduction of Montessori teaching methods at an inner-city primary school could have serious implications for state-sector learning. Steve McCormack reports

In June 2005, The Independent revealed that an inner-city primary school in Manchester was preparing to become the first state school in Britain to formally adopt the progressive Montessori teaching methods. Gorton Mount Primary School introduced Montessori teaching to more than 100 of its youngest pupils last September, and the school, which previously suffered from a history of low achievement, has just attracted glowing praise from a snap Ofsted inspection.

Other struggling state primaries, aware of Gorton Mount's striking success, have begun expressing interest in Montessori. The Montessori Schools Association (MSA) is trying to use the momentum to further its campaign for a nationwide introduction throughout the state system of some of the key elements of Montessori teaching. These include allowing children to learn at their own pace, with almost no whole-class teaching, and using furniture, equipment and activities specifically designed for this purpose.

Ministers are now being asked to continue the funding that enabled the school to launch the experiment at the beginning of the current academic year. The school and the charity arm of the MSA, which matches every pound contributed by the Government, are using the report's findings to argue for extended state funding. Montessori has, in the past, been the preserve of the private sector, with parents paying fees of between £3,000 and £7,000 for the privilege of their child attending one of the UK's 700 Montessori schools.

"We would like every school in the country to have at least one Montessori teacher on board," explains Philip Bujak, the MSA's chief executive. The association's case for wider acceptance can only be assisted by the detailed findings contained in the three-page letter sent to Gorton Mount by Angela Westington, the Ofsted inspector who visited the school to look at behaviour and progress in maths among the Monte- ssori pupils. The letter is littered with positive observations about how the children, many from deprived backgrounds, have responded to the new style of teaching.

For Carole Powell, the head teacher, it was a vindication of her decision to take the school down this revolutionary route, but also a confirmation of what she'd observed herself. "I'd seen the children with new confidence and independence in the classroom," she explains. "But I'd also seen them make more tangible progress - in maths, for example."

This was borne out by the observation in Westington's letter that most of the 120 nursery- and reception-age children enjoying Montessori teaching at Gorton Mount were also hitting the national average in their maths work. "I had never before had the majority of my reception children working at the national average in maths," explains Powell. This will surely strike a chord at the DfES, where ministers are re-emphasising the importance of children mastering the basics, aware that many leave school at 16 still suffering from a lack of ability to do simple arithmetic.

But potentially more explosive for policy-makers, and the wider education community in general, is the repeated implication in Westington's report that the Montessori approach is superior to much of the conventional practice in primary schools. In particular, the report contrasts the deliberately limited educational resources (the equipment and learning activities) and relatively bare surroundings of Gorton Mount's Montessori classrooms, with the more visually stimulating environment that is normal in almost every state primary classroom in the land.

The inspector agrees that the new arrangement has "increased the amount of time children spend in purposeful learning", reduced the amount of "aimless wandering", and brought about a "much calmer working environment".

This comes as no surprise to Bujak, who says that he constantly has to challenge the perception that Montessori methods mean chaos in the classroom. His case is that conventional classrooms can often cause chaos in young minds. "We come from the point of view that children can get over-stimulated by colour, noise and activity," he argues.

The report also comments approvingly on the restricted number and highly focused nature of the tasks available to each child. The inspectors say this decreases the opportunities for incorrect learning and ensures that time is spent more purposefully. This could be read as critical of the "discovery" and "self-direction" elements of learning practised across the state sector.

The driving force behind the experiment was Carole Powell, who had already led the school out of the dire straits it was in three years previously, but whose sympathy for the thrust of Montessori methods convinced her that much more could be achieved with a different approach. She felt that Gorton Mount's intake, from an area displaying social fragmentation at its worst - scarred by unemployment, vandalism and drugs - were just the sort of children who'd benefit from the calmer atmosphere Montessori strives to create.

"Montessori is good for all children," she explains, "but particularly for those who don't have structure, purpose or a wealth of learning opportunities at home."

Since September, Sarah Rowledge, a trained Montessori teacher, has been working full time with the school's nursery and reception teachers to help them implement the approach to education pioneered by Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor who introduced the methods to working-class children in the early 20th century.

So the Manchester children have waved goodbye to structured lessons to fit a timetable and enjoyed learning at their own speed, exercising choice over what they do at any one time. This may appear liberal and lazy, but Montessori experts stress that the activities available to each child are deliberately limited to those that he or she has already been introduced to, and that progress is monitored meticulously so teachers can direct pupils on to more advanced activities at the appropriate juncture.

Nearly all activities use equipment and materials unique to Montessori, many made of wood and each with its distinct purpose and learning goal. Some of these may be related to life skills, such as pouring water from a jug to a cup, or buttoning up a shirt. Others are conventionally academic, such as understanding fractions or parts of speech.

In Montessori, though, it is almost unheard of for a whole class to be engaged in the same activity or a teacher to address all the children at the same time. However, one-to-one and small-group teaching and observation go on almost all the time.

Looking back on the past six months, Rowledge recalls a tough first term when the teachers "didn't know what had hit them". But now that the fruits of hard work are shining through, she says that enormous progress has been made. "I have never seen anything like it. The children are all spontaneously holding pencils and writing. This is magnificent."

She says that it is particularly remarkable given the emotional instability present in many of the children's lives, which only a few months ago manifested itself in mood swings, erratic behaviour and difficulty in maintaining eye contact with an adult. "Now, whatever hell they are going through at home, they are leaving it at the door as they arrive at school."

Among the teaching staff ascending their own learning curves at Gorton Mount is Jeremy Clarke, who entered the experiment with six years' experience of conventional teaching and some nerves about whether it would succeed. All his doubts have now evaporated. "It's been massively beneficial for the children," he says. "Their rate of progress has been particularly impressive in maths and their own social development."

More significantly, his conversion to Montessori has made him ask questions about the teaching approach that he and others used before. "It's been a huge eye-opener. It's made me realise how much waste of time there was before. The Montessori equipment is all so simple and focused."

Word of this success has got round education circles in Manchester. After Powell invited local head teachers to visit the school, four have decided to send teaching staff for a whole day's extended observation of how Montessori has been introduced.

At the same time, a primary school in Essex, with close links to one of the Montessori consultants involved in the Gorton Mount project, has decided to introduce Montessori to its joint Reception/Year 1 class in September. Janet Matthews, head teacher of Stebbing Primary in Great Dunmow, says that what she's heard of the success in Manchester has convinced her that the Montessori approach can be immensely beneficial to young children at her school. Philip Bujak, meanwhile, has received letters from four other state schools asking for more information about how Montessori can be introduced.

Gorton Mount's future is partly in the hands of ministers. The school and the MSA have submitted a joint proposal for £35,000 of funding over two years, which would be matched by the MSA. That would enable a Montessori teacher to be employed full time for two years, to help the school entrench the system in the nursery and reception classes and begin to spread the philosophy further up the school. A statement from the DfES said it was aware of the request for more funding, but that no decisions had yet been made. Philip Bujak is adamant. "I think it would be scandalous if we didn't get the money," he says.

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