Montessori to the rescue

From September, pupils at a tough Manchester primary will become the first in a state school to be taught using the progressive methods pioneered by an Italian educationist
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The tiny chairs and tables, spelling books and paints are those you would see in every classroom of its kind. A colourful wall display announces that they've recently "read Prince Smartypants as inspiration for making crowns." Nothing seems out of the ordinary.

But this classroom, and this school, is about to experience a revolution. From September, the traditional teaching methods used here, as in every one of the 20,000 state primary schools in the country, are being discarded and replaced with Montessori. Out will go structured lessons to fit a timetable; in will come the ideas of one of the high priestesses of progressive education – children learning at their own pace and choosing what they do for as long or as short a time as they please.

In addition to learning how to read, write and add up, the five-year-olds will be acquiring life skills such as how to spoon sugar from a bowl, button up a shirt, wash the dishes and do the ironing.

It will be the first time since nationwide publicly funded education became established in Britain that the Montessori approach– regarded with suspicion by many as cranky and impractical – has been used formally in a state school. Ministers have agreed to put up £40,000 to pay for the experiment. Another £40,000 is coming from the charity arm of the Montessori Schools Association. New Labour appears to have come full circle. Having started off as highly prescriptive and traditional, it is now allowing schools to do their own thing – even if that means turning the clock back to the 1970s notion that the teacher never addresses the class as a whole.

But why has it come to this? Why are the seven teachers and assistants in charge of 100 children in the nursery and reception classes, known as the Foundation Stage, having to throw out the rulebook and learn a new way of teaching?

For the answer you have to look at the school's recent history, and look into the heart of the head teacher, Carole Powell. Gorton Mount, in inner-city Manchester, has a catchment area displaying social fragmentation at its worst. It is one of the poorest areas in Britain, scarred by unemployment, vandalism and drugs, and is one of Manchester's ASBO hot spots.

When Powell arrived at the primary school two and a half years ago, she became the seventh head in just six years. She inherited a school that was disintegrating on almost every front. Only 18 per cent of the children could meet the reading standard for their age and poor behaviour was the norm. The curriculum consisted of English, maths and not much else of any worth, and there were no school assemblies. If Gorton Mount had been a ship, it would have been holed and heading for the rocks.

Powell's priority was to institute a series of rescue measures to prevent complete collapse. By any standards, she's already done a remarkable job. First she concentrated on the emotions, often rooted in desperate backgrounds, which were driving the children's behaviour. Gradually, she managed to create a calmer atmosphere in school. Last year, for example, children had to be expelled for bad behaviour on a total of 153 occasions. This year, with the end of the school year nearly upon us, the figure is just 14.

And improved discipline has helped raise academic achievement. Last year, Gorton Mount's 11-year-olds notched up the school's best ever results in national tests. The percentages reaching the expected standard in English, maths and science were 59, 48 and 76 respectively – still markedly below the national average, but a substantial improvement nevertheless. But Powell wants more, which is where her admiration for Montessori comes in.

"I now want the change to go a lot further, and I want it embedded for the long term," she declares, as she shows me round the 1920s red brick two-storey school, now festooned with bright displays telling of a community where fun and learning has returned. She greets every child by name, always having a moment to share a pleasure or concern.

For years, she has been attracted to the writings and theories of Maria Montessori, the Italian medic whose child-centred approach to education in the early 20th century now has converts the world over. Crucially, Powell was struck by the fact that Montessori started in an area, in Italy, of high social deprivation, not unlike Gorton.

"It is tailor made for our children," she says, adding that the ingredient central to Montessori, which is missing from current state school teaching, is love for the child. "I believe schools should be beautiful, calm places. Children should feel that their teachers love them. With more of that we would not have so much anti-social behaviour in later years."

These beliefs had been stirring in Powell in the two years that she was turning the school round. She realised that much of what she was implementing off her own back reflected elements of Montessori, so, for her, the logical conclusion was to go the whole hog and introduce the system properly. She first floated the idea with her deputies at school, who were immediately enthusiastic. Next came the rest of the teaching staff and the school governors. Nowhere did Powell encounter outright opposition, although often she had to deploy her substantial powers of persuasion.

The chief executive of the Montessori Schools Association, Philip Bujak, was keen. What's more, seeing an opportunity for positive publicity, he got out the cheque book and joined a delegation to see the then Children's Minister Margaret Hodge, who also agreed to throw some money into the pot. The project was up and running.

Fast forward to the last few weeks of this summer term, and a hit squad of four experienced Montessori teachers has descended on Gorton Mount to start the process of getting the school ready for the introduction of Montessori in September.

Their task, together with Powell, is to re-engineer the minds of the teachers and assistants, prepare for the physical changes to three classrooms (layout and special equipment is key to the Montessori method), and help with the process of keeping the parents on board.

The key figure is Sarah Rowledge, head of her own Montessori school in Essex, who is moving to Manchester for nine months to work full-time on this project. She is in no doubt as to the size of the task ahead of her, and the existing Gorton Mount staff.

"The teachers here have no idea of the scale of change," she says, an indication of her belief that, for a state-trained teacher to convert to Montessori, a giant change of mindset is required. The reception class teacher Jeremy Clarke, though, seems aware of the magnitude of the task, and recognises that the biggest change will be to his teaching philosophy.

"It's going to be a huge amount of work. I think we're all a little nervous, but excited too."

During the summer holidays builders will reconfigure and re-furbish the three foundation stage classrooms, ready for the arrival of the new furniture and materials crucial to the implementation of Montessori education.

Georgina Hood, one of the Montessori team, is helping with the process of letting parents know about the changes. She's been encouraged so far. "The main message they see is hope," she says, "and the possibility that their children could do better because of this."

Powell herself has no doubt her children will do better, and in two years', she aims to have the whole school practising the Montessori approach. It is difficult to imagine she won't succeed.

The Montessori method – how it began and where it has reached

An Italian doctor, Maria Montessori (1870-1952), gave her name to an approach to education based on what she saw as every child's natural desire to learn. She was interested in children who were regarded as ineducable. Her seminal book, The Absorbent Mind, argued that, up to the age of six, children learn naturally from their environment.

Under Montessori, children learn at their own pace and according to their own choice of activities. Teachers guide and stand ready to help individuals or small groups, but almost never address the whole class at once. Teachers' observational powers enable them to steer children towards the activities they are ready for. Time limits are rare, children being left to continue with an activity for as long, or little, as they naturally want. Classes consist of mixed age groups, the older children often spontaneously sharing their knowledge with the younger ones.

Montessori has its own learning materials, designed to engage all the senses, and to develop all areas of learning. For example, letters and numbers covered in sandpaper are meant to be handled, to begin the process of learning the shape to follow when writing starts.

Practical skills, such as pouring, sewing and weighing are important parts of Montessori classrooms. All materials are "self-correcting", demonstrating children's own mistakes and helping them move on only when they've completed a task correctly.

There are now Montessori schools all over the world, with particular concentrations in India, New Zealand and the USA.

In the UK, there are 700 Montessori schools, most of which are for the three-to-five age group, but about 100 go up to 11, and half a dozen are secondaries. Parents pay anything between £3,000 and £7,000 a year in fees.