Morals are hot on everyone's agenda. But for one group of pre-school educationists, morals - or "grace and courtesy" - have always been first priority. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) is well known as the founder of a movement spawning nursery schools for the well-heeled. What is not known is that the philosophy behind them was forged in conditions of extreme deprivation - and that it is well adapted to dealing with problems of moral behaviour.
At its base is the idea of "normalisation" - the process of teaching children consideration for others as the basis of feeling happy inthemselves: in other words, bringing them up properly.
Montessori, who began her career by founding the first Orthophrenic School in Turin for "retarded and feeble-minded children" in 1899 and went on to organise infant schools in slum areas of Rome from 1907 onwards, was no stranger to the seedier and more deprived areas of life. Her conviction that children are naturally lovers of order and harmony who will respect each other if encouraged to do so was not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy but a passionate belief in the power of education. In her time, she was seen as a revolutionary pioneer. She introduced the freedom of sensorial ("touchy-feely") educational material to disabled children who had hitherto been locked in empty rooms, and she gave noisy, thieving slum children the right to choose their own classroom activities. Nowadays, however, Montessori is often seen as repressive, prim and lacking in spontaneity.
According to Lesley Britton, director of the London Montessori Centre, this is far from the truth. The 28 children in her school enjoy a bright, spacious schoolroom, with the clean and gleaming Montessori apparatus - such classics of Montessori practice as the Pink Tower, the Bead Tray, building blocks and other aids to counting, sorting and stacking - shelved neatly around the walls. There are well defined areas for circle time, reading and individual work and, as in every Montessori classroom, living things to care for. First principles of the normalisation programme rely on the understanding that pets and plants (fish, stick-insects, bulbs, herbs) need care to thrive, just as children do. Montessori decreed that every school should have a cat and raise numerous litters of kittens.
A standard in the "exercises of practical life" with which each Montessori pupil is supposed to begin his or her nursery school career is greeting a visitor. The savoir faire involved in welcoming and guiding a guest to the classroom is seen as an invaluable tool in developing the social skills that a child of this age is actually keen to develop.
Mrs Britton says that children aged from three to six naturally want to conform to norms: "They watch all the time to see how things are done." In the classroom these norms must be seen to be just and fair. The pattern of work, in which children take their own tasks from the "prepared environment" of the classroom, complete them in their own time and then return them, is aimed both at enhancing the child's self-respect and at creating a harmonious community of self-respecting individuals. It is part of this ideal that each child should be able to make visitors feel welcome, a mark of feeling themselves welcome and valued.
Exercises of practical life are divided into elementary movements and preliminary activities, exercises for the care of self, exercises for the care of the environment and exercises for the development of social skills, grace and courtesy. They form a kind of initiation.
At the beginning, children are shown how best to talk, walk, carry their own chairs, and close and open drawers and doors. With its high child-adult ratio of 7:1, the nursery is able to devote enough time to get children to master these skills and in doing so to internalise the idea of an orderly working environment. Less obviously, the children play the walking on a line game, walking heel-to-toe in file, and the silence game, in which conversation and actions are carried on in the quietest whisper possible. "They really love that," says Lesley Britton, "and it always calms them down." However, it is not a game to play with a disorderly class: children already need to know how to listen.
Care of the self involves those personal hygiene tasks that parents once taught children (blowing the nose, getting dressed, going to the toilet) but which many young children nowadays have not learned - as Mrs Britton points out, rather like the deprived children of Rome in 1907. Care of the environment, as well as the fun of pets and plants, is tidying up and cleaning, cooking and serving a meal, and fire drill, where the aim is to make the children aware of the possibility and dangers of fire.
When it comes to developing social skills, each moment in the day is timetabled as an opportunity. The individual snack task, for instance, allows a child to prepare and lay out a mini-meal to which he or she invites a small group of others. The child then clears away and leaves the table ready for the next group.
The whole class discusses how to interrupt a conversation courteously. The teacher chooses two children and asks them to talk to each other. A third is then picked to wait for a suitable opportunity to interrupt, and shown how to say "excuse me" before giving reasons for interposing and "thank you" at the end.
Even more generally, the exercise on helping out is demonstrated throughout the day. The teacher is always ready to encourage a more skilful child helping another to put on their shoes, to indicate how one child should hold the door for others or to involve the group in caring for any child who is injured.
The great advantage of the Montessori programme over more general approaches promoting moral attitudes and behaviour is that it is all laid down in the syllabus. The 15-30 minutes a day taken up with the basic courtesies of everyday life are not regarded as "dead time" but as what Montessori described as a "true system of help for the development of life". Montessori saw educating nursery-age children in the decencies of social life as a means to make a better society. Prophets of correction and the cane who reckon that learning how to move chairs, serve biscuits and water bulbs is altogether too mundane might like to visit a Montessori class. They will be greeted warmly by a young child - which is a lot more pleasant than getting an exploding firework in your face.
London Montessori Centre, Balderton Street, London W1. Tel: 0171-493 0165