Elaine Williams reports
Gorton in Manchester is a long way from Coggeshall in Essex. A universe away. And no one knows that better than Sarah Rowledge, a teacher on a mission.
Last autumn she left her school, friends, family and labradoodle in sleepy Coggeshall, with its half-timbered houses, clock house and 4x4 mums, to take up a two-term secondment as Montessori adviser at Gorton Mount primary. Gorton Mount, a state school, has Manchester's third most deprived catchment: local authority housing estates ravaged by drug abuse, third-generation unemployment and high rates of mental and physical ill health.
But one thing remains constant in these two far-apart galaxies: children and the way they learn. The Gorton experience has proved to Sarah Rowledge that any child in any circumstance is capable of becoming an independent, self-directed learner when placed in a Montessori environment.
After one term of Montessori magic, children at Gorton Mount, a school previously in special measures, characterised by poor behaviour, a demotivated staff and underachievement, were described by Ofsted as "at ease with their learning", showing "very high levels of perseverance and concentration" in a "calm working environment".
Ofsted spot-checked maths and personal, social and emotional development in Gorton Mount's foundation stage at the start of Sarah Rowledge's second term. It noted that the majority of the 120 nursery and reception children were hitting the national average in maths - a first for the school.
Montessori gives children the freedom to choose from a range of activities and move around their classroom as they like. When it was introduced at Gorton Mount, Sarah Rowledge says children went into a "frenzy" in the life skills area. The carpets were quickly covered in chickpeas, rice and black-eyed beans as pupils enthusiastically took to whisking, pouring and sorting. Within days, however, they were settled, adapting well to the rhythm of their new three-hour "work cycles", and experimenting with materials in the sensorial, maths, cultural and language areas.
These days, says Sarah Rowledge, if you placed a Gorton Mount pupil alongside a child in her nursery school in Coggeshall, "you would not tell the difference".
Taking Montessori to Gorton Mount has been a huge leap of faith for the Montessori Schools Association (MSA), formed two years ago to give coherence to the movement and promote it within the mainstream. When the MSA received a phone call from Carole Powell, Gorton Mount's headteacher, asking for help in introducing the methods at her school, it spotted an opportunity to prove that Montessori education benefits all, not just middle-class families who can afford private nurseries.
The MSA supported Carole Powell's funding submission to the Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit and topped up her pound;40,000 grant with another pound;60,000. The money has been used for equipment, furniture, renovation and research, as well as a monthly salary for Sarah Rowledge. The MSA has also committed pound;10,000 to an evaluation report from the Institute of Education.
In many ways Sarah Rowledge sees her work at Gorton Mount as taking Montessori back to its roots. Maria Montessori worked with poor and special needs children in Rome in the early 20th century. She believed that all children had a natural desire to learn and would do so best when allowed to work and discover at their own pace. Her theories were based on the principle, "First the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect".
"The key thing about Maria Montessori was that she was a scientist and based her methods of educating on observation of how children learn," says Sarah Rowledge. It is thanks to her, for example, that all primary schools have child-sized furniture.
Gorton Mount's nursery and reception classes are now extremely orderly places, with furniture and resources - donated by Montessori suppliers Artful Dodgers and Community Playthings - made from natural materials and with open shelves at child height offering activities that children are free to choose from. But there is nothing chaotic or random about this freedom.
The environment is designed to promote order, calm and beauty, to help children understand that learning can be pleasurable. Sarah Rowledge and three other volunteers from Essex spent last summer painting and fitting out classrooms at Gorton Mount according to Montessori principles and training staff - 10 teachers and assistants - in Montessori methods.
The transition was not easy, and for the first term staff were exhausted by the effort of dealing with day-to-day issues at the same time as taking on board and applying a new educational philosophy. They were buoyed up, however, by the major changes they could see in the children's attitudes and the obvious pleasure they were taking in coming to school. "The shoulders go down and the children become totally relaxed when they come in here," says Sarah Rowledge.
They have waved goodbye to timetabled "chunks" of lessons and instead work independently on their chosen tasks. Jeremy Clarke, Gorton Mount's head of foundation stage, says the children have become "enchanted" by their learning. What's more, teachers are able to closely track their pupils'
development. "This is an extremely rigorous system," says Mr Clarke. "Each piece of equipment has specific learning goals and the children can just go as far as they want. They learn from the concrete to the abstract.
"When we match activities to the early learning goals we find that children are meeting targets after a term in nursery that they are not expected to reach until the end of reception. The greatest thing is seeing children who have been here two terms who are reading; seeing boys who love to write."
Carole Powell intends that, funding permitting, the Montessori approach will eventually run through the whole school, creating a very different institution from the one she took over in 2002. She is the school's seventh headteacher in six years, who walked into an institution in special measures where "teachers hated the kids and kids hated the teachers", where trust had broken down at every level between staff, pupils and parents, where classrooms were locked and children were under tables, on the roof and up the trees.
She admits that there was not a lot of competition for the job, but says she took the headship because of the challenge. Beneath the aggravation was a group of children wanting to learn and a willing community waiting to be involved.
When Carole Powell asked the outgoing Year 6 what she should do to improve things, they said, "Stick around, Miss". So that's what she has done, introducing along the way an emotional literacy programme, a play therapist, a counsellor and an artist to support the children. She felt Montessori was the next obvious step. "I thought that in a good Montessori environment the children could fly."
Philip Bujack, the MSA's chief executive, says the Gorton experience has sparked huge interest. Groups of Manchester headteachers have visited the school and Mr Bujack is receiving enquiries from all over the country.
Sarah Rowledge has been invited to talk to primary teachers in Northampton.
A primary school in Essex wishes to introduce Montessori throughout the school, not just at the foundation stage.
Philip Bujack says: "We had very little time to get Montessori up and running in Gorton Mount and we have lacked all the resources we need, but it has still made a huge difference. The potential for schools is enormous."
Sarah Rowledge, meanwhile, is back in Essex. "It's been bloody tough, and from a personal point of view I've never been so lonely in my life," she says. "But the environment that's been created at Gorton Mount really is child-centred. It's something special."
For further details contact Caroline Delacombe at the Montessori Schools Association. Tel: 0207 584 7101; www.montessori.org.uk
PRINCIPLES OF MONTESSORI
* Freedom to choose. Children learn different things at different speeds and need the freedom to choose their own work.
* Freedom to move. The hands are "the tools of the brain". If children's hands are involved in their learning, they learn more effectively.
* Freedom to repeat.Children should be allowed to repeat activities as many times as they like before moving on to the next stage.
* Absorbent minds. Children are calmed by physical order. Physical order leads to order of the mind.