As seen on The Gaurdian
The Montessori Place has no year groups, no assessments, and students work in partnership with mentors to decide what to study
ne student is completing a project on the rise of the emoji in modern culture. Another is making notes on the incubation of duck eggs, in anticipation of a hatching the next day. Others are outside in the garden, tending to basil, which will later be sold in a local shop.
This is an usual place to learn, and the first Montessori school for adolescents in the UK to be endorsed by AMI, although there are others that teach in the Montessori style. There are no year groups, no subject departments, no timetables and no assessments. There are also no teachers in the traditional sense: adults are “guides”, mentors who meet with students weekly or fortnightly to review their work and set a programme of learning. Students study in mixed age groups, learning from each other and working on topics that interest them.
Montessori pre-school and primary schools have become popular in the UK – with around 700 early years and primary institutions, four of which are state-funded.
Outside the curriculum
The Montessori Place is a converted conference centre in East Sussex with an extensive walled garden, “the living laboratory”, where students spend a large part of their time learning how to grow vegetables and tend to animals.
The school opened its doors to adolescents in September and although there are currently only seven students, it plans to expand to 60 in the coming years. Paul Pillai, the softly spoken and intellectual head guide, describes the partnerships between students and guides as “a different relationship” to the usual teacher-student dynamic: “I’m more of a coach, or a line manager. I meet with the students individually, we discuss goals and how we’ll achieve them, and then we meet again and see how they’ve got on.”
Deciding what each student will work on is about looking for “a spark”, says Pillai: “What fires this student up? If we don’t find that, we are wasting our time.” From there, they work together to plan a series of activities loosely covering recognisable curriculum areas such as the humanities, arts and maths. And then the students more or less get on with it.
“Real work” and looking after the community are other vital elements of the student experience. So they help with cooking, cleaning and the maintenance of the building, as well as running a bed and breakfast for visitors.
Students will take GCSEs in English and maths with the option to take science and other subjects by request, but qualifications aren’t the main focus. “There is a point at which a qualification is valuable and that’s A-level,” says Pillai. “Before that, we just want to feed a passion. There’s a joy to studying a subject without curriculum constraint.”
During sessions, students are also encouraged to take time out to reflect and “just be”. Dr Robert Loe, director of education consultancy and research organisation Relational Schools, believes it’s an approach that has value: “One of the biggest issues we face is that schools these days are time poor. Time is the currency of relationships, and relationships precede learning and success.”
But the Montessori approach is not without its critics. They say that it’s too individualistic in its approach at the expense of group work and social interaction; that it focuses too much on the practical; and that it’s elitist, with most schools only being available to those who can afford the private fees.
Since the Montessori Place is a private school, such education doesn’t come cheap. So does that investment lead to better results? There’s been little research into the academic results among adolescent Montessori students, but there is evidence to suggest improved motivation and engagement among Montessori middle-schoolers, and better academic performance among younger children in the US.
And what about after they’ve taken their A-levels, when these students are applying for jobs, or for university courses? Will they be disadvantaged? Christine Doddington, fellow emerita of educational philosophy at the University of Cambridge, doesn’t think so. “These students may not have as many GCSE results, but they’ll have advantages in other ways,” she says.
“In recent years, universities have been talking about how many students they get who don’t have the ability to think for themselves. So I think students who have had different experiences could be very attractive in that context.”
She questions, though, whether so much independence is always positive. “There’s a real need to mediate learning for adolescents so that it is not remote, inert and dry but instead has the urgency, warmth and intimacy of a direct experience. This requires great artistry and skill as a teacher, and I’m not sure the idea of teacher as guide does justice to that.”
What the future looks like for this first cohort of students from the Montessori Place remains to be seen. But in the context of increasing focus on academic subjects in secondary education more broadly, the school is perhaps one worth watching.
- This article has been amended to clarify that the Montessori Place is the first AMI Montessori school for adolescents in the UK, rather than the first to teach in the Montessori style.
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