'Montessori isn't an exclusive club'

A concerted effort is under way to spread the method into state schools
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Philip Bujak has a dream. The chief executive of the Montessori St Nicholas Charity hopes that one day every state primary school in the country will have a Montessori teacher on their staff. But with only five state primaries using Montessori practices in the UK, he knows he has a mountain to climb.

"It is an accident of history that Montessori schools are private in this country," he says. "Anyone who knows anything about Montessori will tell you it's not just for the private sector. It's a method of teaching that should be available to all. We were founded in the slums of Rome: the Montessori method works best with children who want to learn, who are not necessarily in a place to be able to learn."

Pioneered by the Italian physician Maria Montessori in 1907, the method gives children the freedom to learn at their own pace and to choose topics that hold their attention. It is popular in Scandinavia and in the US, and is usually applied to children under six. There are 631 registered private Montessori primary and nursery schools in the UK – but Bujak is keen to shatter the perception of an exclusive club.

He has started a number of initiatives to bring Montessori back to its roots, one of which seeks to help practitioners to develop their careers outside the private sector. The organisation began a two-year foundation degree last September, validated by London Metropolitan University. On completion, and after a six-month, full-time teaching placement, students can join the third year of London Metropolitan's early childhood studies BA (Hons) course, with access to Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) and Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programmes.

"Many teachers want a life-changing experience and come on to the course to convert to Montessori," says Bujak. "We also wanted to try to improve the skills of our own workforce, and we wanted a qualification accepted in the state sector that would allow them to work in a state primary. We hope eventually that state schools will go out and advertise for a Montessori teacher, so that each state primary can have one Montessori specialist on staff."

Camilla Harris, 21, a philosophy graduate from Newcastle University, began the foundation course in September. "I'm really enjoying it, it's very hands-on," she says. "We have lectures Monday to Wednesday, then teaching practice on Thursday and Friday in a Montessori school. It's great to see how methods you're learning about relate to real life." Harris plans to travel with her qualification, and to study a PGCE to give her a range of career options.

"Montessori is so much more prevalent in other parts of the world. I would love to go to India, where Maria Montessori spent a lot of time, and maybe one day set up my own Montessori school back home," she says, adding that she also has her eye on developments in the state sector. Last month, Montessori's charitable arm announced plans to open its first bespoke state primary in a London borough.

"We want to put a Montessori school in an environment that is very challenged. We want a local authority to allow us to build a school and gift it to them," says Bujak. "It would be managed and run by the local authority. Our only input will be the teaching."

Montessori has also been in talks with the New Schools Network, the charity set up on the back of the Conservatives' proposal for a network of independent schools funded by the state. "I like the concept but I am worried about its sustainability," says Bujak. "I wouldn't want a new school opening to the detriment of existing schools."

Gorton Mount school in Manchester has used Montessori methods for five years and has seen improvements in its test results for 11-year-olds since adopting Montessori methods.

"Traditionally we don't test, but those who go to Montessori primary schools are prepared for Key Stage 2 SATs," says Barbara Isaacs, academic director at the Montessori Centre International in London, where the new foundation course is taught. "We are constantly reflecting on the relevance of the Montessori approach, and that is something our foundation course students are encouraged to do."