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Another way to learn - alternative schools

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 15:09 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011

All parents want their children to start school as painlessly as possible and search high and low for the most child-friendly pre-school or primary.  This new government has broadened the choice of schools available. The coalition’s free schools programme will see alternatives such as Steiner and Montessori schools, becoming an option for many parents – but what is the difference between them and mainstream schools?

True Montessori schools provide child-sized environments in which the activities designed to lead children to learning, without formal lessons. The teaching method is based on the practice and research of Dr Maria Montessori, a doctor and educator, working at the beginning of the twentieth century, who believed that self-directed learning was best for the under 6s  

early education @ NiDerLander - Fotolia

Montessori believed that children learned best through sensory experience, rather than the formal, strict lessons of her time. She observed children learning to read and learning numbers through (carefully prepared) play materials. In Montessori schools, children are encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible - to tidy their own toys, dress themselves and act as they would within a family. Adult helpers do just that – help the children in whatever activity they choose for themselves, rather than teaching them in the conventional sense. 

A lot of these principles are used in ‘mainstream’ nurseries, pre-schools and primary schools – there has been a recent re-focus on learning through play and child-directed activity. If this is done well, this leads to children using their natural curiosity and interest in the world around them, to learn new skills.

Steiner schools are also child-centred in their teaching, believing that children should find joy in learning, and that education should serve the whole child, not simply academically. The schools are divided into different age groups, with nursery up until age 6, lower school from 7-13 and upper school 14-19. They have no system of testing, with children being encouraged to express themselves creatively through music, drama, art and dance. They discourage children from using screens right up to the end of lower school and do not start using computers in school, until the age of 13.

The notions of the ‘purity’ of childhood are based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Unlike Montessori, he developed a philosophy called Anthroposophy, on which he based his ideas of child care and learning. A quick web search on this will give you the basics - the spiritual ideas were also very important to Steiner, and some schools, whilst not often actually teaching them, still uphold these ideas..

I have to declare my bias towards Montessori - my grandmother was trained in the method (standard training at the time, in the 1930s) and I am considering sending my daughter to my local Montessori nursery next year! I’m not so sure about Steiner schools, as although I limit TV and computer time, I feel that they are not harmful in small doses and I am not sure about the ‘spiritual’ side of Steiner teachings. However, they are highly praised by some parents and kids, who absolutely love the schools.

Ultimately, as parents, we need to carefully research the kind of school we choose, particularly as there is more and more choice out there. It’s important to visit the schools and talk to existing parents, as well as researching the accreditation of the schools - there is currently no legislation governing which schools are allowed to call themselves Montessori or Steiner - to get a more accurate picture than the one written in an Ofsted report.

The ideal is (of course) that whichever school you opt for, whether state-funded or otherwise, it supports the values you are teaching at home and encourages children to explore the world and engage with other people, resulting in happy and confident children who actually like going to school.

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.



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