Original paper headline: Montessori goes mainstream as Sure Start centre opens
The country's first Montessori Sure Start Children's Centre has opened in Essex as interest in the child-initiated teaching method shows signs of entering the mainstream.
The Oaklea Montessori for under-threes opened at the end of last term and will take three to five-year-olds from September.
The centre - part of the Windmill Children's Centre in Harwich - was initiated after the county council identified a shortage of places for toddlers in the area. It is headed by Caroline Allen, who also runs a Montessori nursery in Colchester.
There are around 700 Montessori schools and nurseries in the UK, but only four state schools use the method.
However, the movement was boosted recently when the Conservatives said they would consider enabling Montessori and Steiner schools to expand with state funding.
Philip Bujak, chief executive of the Montessori St Nicholas charity, said: "We would like every school to be aware of what Montessori can offer and have a member of staff who can deal with any problems using a Montessori approach.
"We provide all the equipment and have opened a training college there, so local mothers can be trained in the Montessori method and then work in the centre."
Mr Bujak is now in talks with two state primaries in London and a children's centre in Birmingham which want to introduce Montessori methods next term.
Mr Bujak said that the introduction of the early-years foundation stage has also proved helpful for the movement by providing a common language for Ofsted and Montessori teachers.
For example, the early learning goal of requiring children to "be confident to try new activities, initiate ideas and speak in a familiar group" is similar to the Montessori aim of children being "curious about new activities being undertaken by older peers".
Mr Bujak said: "The Montessori curriculum matches with the EYFS exactly. That is a huge advantage. When I first came to the job in 2004 there were problems with Ofsted reports on Montessori schools giving a distorted picture of what was going on."
Montessori fact file
Maria Montessori was the first woman to graduate as a doctor in Italy, in 1896.
She initially worked with children with severe learning difficulties but went on to develop an approach for all children, based on her conviction that the early years are crucial.
Montessori education uses multi-age classrooms, and pupils choose what to work on and study for extended periods. Competitive grades and tests are discouraged and children are encouraged to collaborate.
The method has been criticised by some as too stifling; others say that it allows children to spend too long on menial tasks.
But US research published in the journal Science in 2006 found that inner- city children who went to a nursery where Montessori was used well did better in social situations, reading and maths than their peers.