The Montessori approach naturally offers elegant solutions to the many issues raised by The Times Education Commission, published this week says Louise Livingston, Head of Training at the Maria Montessori Institute.
The Times Education Commission’s final report outlines a 12-point plan for reform of the education sector. It is a fascinating and far-reaching read which raises many questions, brings significant issues into sharp focus and proposes forward-thinking and holistic approaches.
The findings of the year-long inquiry are particularly pertinent to early years: many schools say that since the pandemic they are having to focus on basic care rather than literacy or numeracy in the first year or two of primary education. Some report children arriving at school unable to say their own names, using dummies, drinking from baby bottles and being brought to school in buggies until the age of six or seven. In response, the commission calls for the Government to offer more parenting classes, home visits and family drop-in centres, as well as a “five-a-day” initiative to encourage parents to talk to and play with their children, similar to the healthy eating campaign.
As Montessorians we are naturally nervous of the suggestion that children are falling behind or not reaching expected milestones “on time”, as we know that every child will develop in different ways to their own timetable. However, these findings suggest a lack of opportunities for early development that is undoubtedly concerning.
As Montessori educators we are fortunate, because although some children have arrived in school with less social and language skills – the Montessori environment provides them with the necessary environment to reach their full potential.
When a child first joins a Montessori classroom, they are supported to develop physically so that they can engage in the world around them in a purposeful way. The Montessori teacher is trained to observe children’s physical ability and to offer activities that will help them to build on the individual skills each child already has. This may differ greatly from child to child, particularly dependent on the experiences they have had with regard to physical activity during the pandemic.
In a Montessori environment, children are supported to become independent so they can do things for themselves and others – such as dressing themselves, preparing food or pouring a drink. These deceptively simple activities boost self-esteem as children view themselves as capable people who can do things for themselves, and this can have a powerful impact in addressing the lack of confidence some young children may have due to having so little freedom during the pandemic.
The Montessori approach also enriches children’s oral language, capitalising on the young child’s huge hunger for language at this time. By working with each other and contributing practically to the school community by serving and clearing away food and maintaining the learning environment, children learn how to socialise, collaborate and interact.
But perhaps most important of all, the Montessori mixed-age environment, which sees children in a three-year age span grouped together, can support children lacking in social and language skills. Younger children learn from the role models of the older children, and older children benefit from supporting the younger ones. Having a broader range of ages in one classroom also lessens the expectation of all children reaching the same stage at the same time.
The commission also recognises the scale of the challenge of supporting children with special educational needs, with an estimated 16% of pupils in the state system with SEN. Montessori can also offer a fresh perspective in this area with its greater focus on child observation and recognising and supporting each child’s unique capabilities.
We were also pleased to see that the commission calls for schools to better connect with businesses, charities, homes and the local community, as well as suggesting a national citizen service programme. Both in the early years (the Montessori Children’s House), and later in primary education (the Montessori elementary class), the Montessori approach embraces interaction with people and organisations outside of the school ecosystem from special visitors coming into school, to children visiting parent workplaces or getting involved in local charities and initiatives. Engagement with the wider community connects children with the world and provides vital real-world context which will help them to choose their path in life, as well as enhancing their studies.
During the pandemic children may have been deprived of experiences vital to their optimal development but it is important to remain optimistic. Children are resilient: because of the huge plasticity of their brains when they are young, they can make up for lost time as soon as opportunities open up for them. Children can still grow into independent, self-reliant, social, creative thinkers – so long as we offer them early years and school environments that offer freedom of movement, social interaction and opportunities to make independent choices. You can find all this in a Montessori environment.
One of the most significant aspects of this commission for us is the welcome recognition that education is not purely a question of acquiring academic skills and it does not start or end at the school gate: it’s about gaining independence and social skills, and about understanding and contributing to the world around you – as Montessori says it should be “education for life”. We applaud the attention this commission brings to the many opportunities there are to shake up and improve our approach to education – we just hope someone in the Government is listening.
Louise Livingston has over 30 years of experience in education and a background in educational neuroscience. Louise is Head of Training at the Maria Montessori Institute.