Concern about attempts to set up a Montessori free school

Rosemary Mann's picture
My eldest daughter is about to start school in September so I am becoming aware of educational choices from a parental perspective. I also work in the field of educational provision from the point of view of supply in another local authority area, and I am a school governor in Lewisham. My concerns and hence interest in this site were sparked by proposals to set up a Montessori Free school in my area citing pressure on reception places as a means of gaining support for the new school. Also my daughters likely school was considering becoming an Academy, something which I found appalling. At the open afternoon, some of the parents of SEN children felt that their questions were dismissed out of hand.

In addition with respect to the free school campaign there has been considerable misrepresentation of the local authority's actions or inaction in dealing with the problem - again all to boost the campaign which is actually very well run and very well supported financially. The marketing and advertising is pretty slick and very convincing but relying on misinformation and false promises. However, as a governor of a state primary I am aware of what the local authority is doing across the borough and also that a new school is not necessarily the most cost effective or best way of solving local problems when many existing schools could be remodelled and extended for a fraction of the cost of a new school and still leave some change for repairs and modernisation of others. In addition our local schools are all fairly good and I want them to stay that way but to be adequately funded which again I see threatened by government policy.

I am also concerned at the concept of a Montessori school which is already attracting interest from outside the borough hence I see this as doing little to provide enhanced places for Lewisham children. Having such a defined philosophy it is not likely to be able to fill its places from the immediate locality. The campaigners however refuse to tackle the serious questions instead seeking to fuel panic and concern amongst local people and misrepresent the situation. Is it really all so simple that a group of people can just get together, peddle inaccuracies about the facts, make a whole series of promises and assurances about meeting the need of local children when in fact it will be a minority and the balance will have to come from outside Lewisham, and get a new specialist school established with taxpayers funds? Just like that?

Apparently so which fills me even more with dismay than Gove's circus at the Tory party conference did. I would therefore like and welcome advice and support to ensure that the misinformative propaganda for this campaign is counteracted , that the virtues of state schools are extolled and promoted, and that this school is not established without a full impact assessment on the local community and local provision.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 12:10

The first thing to do Rosemary is to contact your local MP, who I believe is Joan Ruddock ( and voice your concerns. It looks like the school has only the support of 11 parents and is tiny! From my calculations, because the school is so small, it will be extremely expensive per pupil to run; the cost of educating 20 pupils could amount to what could be as much as £52,324 per pupil next year, as opposed to 5.3K which is the state average per pupil. When it is full with 200 pupils, which is what they are intending capacity to be, the cost per pupil will be £9224, £4K more than the state average. This estimate does not include setting up costs. You should ask your MP to ask a question in Parliament about the cost at the very least. Furthermore, it looks like yet another example of wealthy parents wanting to separate their children from the poorer ones. There are social segregation issues as well!!

Rosemary Mann's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 12:53

Thanks, I think there are more than 11 parents interested but there is a petition of 200 although 25% of these seem to be outside of Lewisham and some as far away as New Zealand! There is no confirmed location at present so it might make sense to contact all 3 Lewisham MPs at this current time.
Basically I have no problem with parent power, just the setting up a school with no consultation framework with local people on the range of impacts, and from a central government budget which displaces funding for other schools. I remain concerned that the campaign is based on providing more reception places for Lewisham children when things are not that straightforward.

I would be grateful to know the selection criteria used by Michael Gove in selecting the schools- is this information available? Are you able to confirm the position in respect of consultation rights of local people, and the rumour that planning regulations will be swayed in order to enable schools to be set up more quickly?

Whilst it may not be the intention, I would imagine that Montessori may not be the method of choice for many local Lewisham parents other than the better off, so ultimately this may skew the ability of this new school to be inclusive.

Gerry Newton's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 13:16

These figures are simply guesswork. In any case, if we start to reduce the value of education provision to a superficial 'per capita' cost, what"s the next logical step? Presumably these 'well-off' parents could point out that there tax contribution per capita is rather higher than the average.

A good comprehensive school is the ideal - but some people clearly do not believe that the less good ones can be improved from within. What's so terrible about that?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 14:39

Firstly, to Gerry, the figures are a bit more than guesswork, they are generated from a "linear regression" which was calculated using the DfE's own statistics, see for a full discussion. Secondly, if there are spare places in other primary schools the cost-effective thing to do would be to place these children there at a fraction of the cost than setting up a new school. Parents have considerable powers to influence the direction of a curriculum in a school now.

Rosemary, yes the DfE does have selection criteria which are very vague basically. For full info:

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 14:13

The DfE website makes it clear that regulations about school buildings and planning laws can be set aside to make it easier for 'free' schools to set up:

"Ministers are working right across Government to remove red tape which can prevent new schools from setting up, ranging from planning laws to the Department’s own school premises rules. "

So the Government allows a tiny, but vocal, group of school providers to be freed from the regulations that govern other schools by law. This is a manifestation of Orwell's dictum:

"All animals are equal; but some animals are more equal than others."

Rosemary Mann's picture
Thu, 03/02/2011 - 23:31

I really don't see how ,given the BSF and Primary Capital programmes with all the design guidance and good practice , and research based evidence of increased standards, we are suddenly plunged back into reduced standards, and variation of planning laws in order to get inferior premises through the planning system. How exactly is this going to improve the educational environment for children and maintain educational standards. Its like going back to the middle ages. So many of the free schools get their public support from assurances of a better experience but there is nothing in the Government guidance that suggests that this is going to be achieved. Seemingly the idealogical shift towards parent promotion can seemingly overcome all of these shortcomings.

Sarah Cottle's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 18:45

I won't be arguing the merits or otherwise of the free school policy but as the campaign manager and originator of the plan to set up a Montessori primary Free School in Lewisham I am compelled to address the following: there is a shortage of reception class places in the borough of Lewisham, plain and simple; the campaign is run by parents at lunchtime, weekends and evenings. It involves a vast amount of hard work which we undertake willingly for something we believe to be right. There are no guarantees that our own children will benefit from our labours. There is no financial backing at all for the campaign. Minimal costs incurred have been covered by our three year olds taking part in a "Sponsored Build a Tower" event and a raffle with prizes donated by local supportive businesses. The petition has 350 names, online and on paper. Some 45% of those answered answered "yes" to a supplementary question "Do you have a child you would consider sending to the school?" Meanwhile, pre-registrations have been building steadily. The school will be oversubscribed for the first and subsequent years from inside Lewisham. Montessori, by its very nature and origins, is an inclusive teaching method which can benefit children from all backgrounds and of all abilities. Our proposal was submitted to the DfE this evening and we hope for approval soon.

Raj Singh's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 19:56

Rosalyn's comments strike me as overly negative, completely biased and frankly unfounded. Where is the misrepresentation Rosalyn? If I were involved in the campaign I would be suing you for libel. From what I hear their campaign is well researched and I hear that the council supports their campaign and is happy to be quoted in their submissions. You should go and do something positive rather than rubbish other people's fine efforts. Well done Sarah - we all support you!!

Mr L Nelson's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 21:03

"Having such a defined philosophy it is not likely to be able to fill its places from the immediate locality."

Rosemary, your contribution to the debate is muddled, misguided, and contains a disguised contempt for the people of Lewisham. It also betrays a sad lack of understanding of what a Montessori school is - I say sad, because you don't appear to appreciate that it is commonly regarded as good manners to take the trouble to find out what you are talking about before you talk about it.

"Such a defined philosphy." This is mean spirited and ignorant twaddle. Don't of course bother to explain what you mean by it! "Such a defined philosphy" - one can only guess what you mean by this or why it is that what it is you think you might mean fills you with dismay! And all on behalf of the poor people of Lewisham, if that is indeed what you mean by the "immediate locality," those poor people who, you fear, are "not likely" to fill the places at the proposed school. Perhaps you think the parents in the "immediate locality" are only interested in sending their children to schools with no defined "philosphy" at all.

I am afraid to say that your comments betray a real mean spiritedness and ignorance.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 21:10

In response to Sarah and Raj, the Council has confirmed to me (in writing) that it is not 'supporting' the campaign for a free school in the way that its being claimed. It is doing what it is required to do but that doesn't include the level of 'support' which is being claimed by the campaign group on its website, nor it is 'assisting with finding suitable premises'.
I'm not going to directly quote my sources on this website but I do have an email from someone in a position of authority at Lewisham stating the nature of the discussions that took place , and its certainly not as claimed by the campaigners. To therefore try and claim that there is council backing for this is venture indeed misrepresentation and therefore shameful as no doubt it is being portrayed as so to try and garner more suppport and to make the campaign look more influential than it really is. The fact remains that many parents who support this campaign are hard and fast Montessori people ( and seemingly their far flung distant relatives) or those who have been panicked into signing up by the confident assertion of this campaign that it will meet the shortage of reception places. The fact is there is no such evidence that it will and an increasing likelihood that it won't being of a specific educational philosophy that is still in the main the choice of a minority of parents. The likelihood is that just like many of the faith schools, and as in the case of a local Catholic school near to my home, the children will from necessity have to come from a wide catchment area. There are probably many in neighbouring Southwark neighbourhoods who will jump at the chance as their own borough's position is a lot worse than Lewishams. This will not do much for the local Lewisham shortage if it brings pupils in from elsewhere. The Catholic school I refer to above is well thought of ( by Catholic parents) but the endemic problem is that it does not relate well to the local community, the parents drive to drop their children off hence causing considerable traffic congestion and danger as they park erratically to do so. Unfortunately I can envisage the same happening with this free Montessori as it searches outside the standard catchment area to find pupils to substantiate its existence.

I also spoke, and speak, as a local parent of a pre schooler and a local school governor. I am reasonably familiar with the problems of school places and measures which the Council is taking and I am involved, as a Governor in trying to get other governors discussing a longer term strategy with the Council on future provision. Like many other school governors, I also spend a lot of time, as well as bringing up three young children and working practically full time, on trying to safeguard my childrens educational future from the next outlandish ConDem notion.
So I wonder if thats useful or positive enough for you, Raj? If not let do let me know and I will try harder. I assume that you are also a hard pressed Lewisham parent with pre school children,rather than many of this school's supporters , at least 25% of whom appear to reside outside Lewisham in wonderful places such as East Grinstead, Sussex and New Zealand.

There is indeed a shortage of reception places in Lewisham but the Council has presented a strategy for dealing with this and consultations with local parents are already under way. Sarah Cottle has already made an attempt to derail one such consultation by suggesting that discontent parents opt for her free school instead. I have pointed out that this is an extremely dangerous strategy for parents to adopt, but thankfully people round this way do have more sense .

Lewisham has been extremely successful in accommodating pupils in previous years, something which is to the credit of its committed Council officers. I have no doubt that this is not an ideal situation and parents, governors and local people need to work together with the council in improving the situation and in ensuring that year on year 'bolt on' classrooms do not have a negative effect on our childrens education. However the truth is we have a baby boom to cater for but with a little thought and good design, higher density provision does not need to mean poorer quality. There are many schools with no or little room to expand but many others sitting on relatively low density sites which could be redesigned to accommodate more pupils easily and with minimal impact on existing provision.

I await the outcome of this free school proposal with interest and look forward to the formal consultations and evidence being forthcoming that it meets a defined local need and is worthy of the considerable public investment that it will need and which will need to be diverted from other local authority modernisation and expansion programmes. Like many local parents, I am not prepared to see this school be sanctioned and paid for at the expense of existing local schools and their pupils.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 23:09

Dear L Nelson,

Excuse my ignorance, I am just a local parent who doesn't understand why there is a suggested demand for a Montessori Primary in her local area and who is concerned at how this will distort and confuse demand and supply and remove funds for local state schools that her children will eventually attend. As I am clearly so deficient in many ways pointed out by yourself, Mr Singh, and Toby Young this evening, I would be grateful if you could explain why I should welcome this initiative as clearly I am too dim to see it and need enlightening.

It interesting that personal insults now seem to be order of the day from supporters of these free schools who seem otherwise to have little real defence for their position. However I am pleased to be rattling the relevant cages by asking the pertinent questions which no one seems able to answer.

Ms Cottle seems to think it will reduce the shortage of reception places and will improve the choice of parents. How exactly, when not everyone will agree that a Montessori education, with non QTS teachers, is the best for their child? When you provide something like this it only reduces choice as not everyone will go for it. But hey thats only my opinion as a local parent. As I said, Montessori appeals to a few people. It doesn't appeal to me. I don't rate it at all. Its nice in the nursery/pre school years when its all a bit more relaxed and theres no pressure but is it so in the primary years when parents see this as the laying the groundwork for the demanding secondary school experience.?I have looked into it when looking for a nursery for my children as there are few highly rated Montessori nurseries in my locality. I didn't get it then and I don't get it now. But then I don't get religious schools either as I don't believe in any God.

I am sure Montessori is harmless but in the context of supplying primary education the teachers don't even have fully qualified status in the UK. I don't think many people are actually aware of this. One has to ask why this is and whether local people want effectively unqualified teachers educating their children within an educational philosophy which in practice tends to be favoured by a few,and has not featured that widely within the private sector provision.

You might be better off ceasing the expressions of outrage that a local parent has a mind of her own and isn't believing everything she's told,and instead providing hard supporting evidence of the alleged benefits of such a free school to the parents and children of Lewisham.

Mr L Nelson's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 23:50

Rosalyn, in her ill considered diatribe, speaks among other things, of the proposed school as "being of a specific educational philosophy that is still in the main the choice of a minority of parents."

Yes, Montessori schools adhere to a carefully thought out method of teaching based on respect for children and a profoundly important understanding of the role of the teacher as a guide rather than a leader. This derives from the incite that children naturally wish to learn about the world around them - an incite to which all parents will intuitively assent. The first Montessori schools flourished among children living in extreme poverty in Italy at the beginning of the last century. There is nothing inherently middle class about the method of teaching. It is is a method that was anticipated by Leo Tolstoy when he taught peasant children in Russia in the 1850s.

Is Rosalyn suggesting that "specificity" in regard to education is to be avoided - that th "majority " of parents are not interested in knowing precisely what sort of education their children are receiving, or what its underpinning "philosopy" is? - I doubt her use of the word is apt, intelligent or helpful.

It is a fact demonstrated by the comments of those opposed to this proposed school that there is widespread ignorance about the Montessori method of teaching. That is to be deplored. One way of addresing this state of affairs is to publicise what a Montessori school is. This campaign has tried to do this. Its detrators do not seem to be interested in learning.

Rosalyn, echoing the language of the woman who started this unimgainative and mean spirited attack, uses the clumsy and tendentious phrase "specific educational philosophy," intending, perhaps without fully acknowledging her intention, to make what is a simple and enlightened approach to education seem abstruse, narrow and unapproachable. This is a truer indication her own narrowness, I would guess.

Saying that a Montessori education is "still in the main the choice of a minority," is comically ironic, since it fails to address the point,already made in this repsonse, that for reasons that are obvious [by which, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean the almost absolute preponderance of teacher-lead models of education], the majority of parents simply do not know about alternatives. It is thus misleading to say that they do not choose a Montessori education for their children.

I wager that anyone not ossified by prejudice and mean spiritedness who walks into a Montessori school and watches how the children learn, would conclude that the setting up of a Montessori school anywhere, not just in Lewisham, would be of incalculable benefit to the local community and to the the children that attend. Go and find out about Montessori. Visit a school. See for yourselves. May this be the first of many!

Sarah Cottle's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 12:56

Firstly, thank you Mr. L Nelson for your informed description of Montessori. You saved me a job. Secondly, the proposed school will employ QTS with additional Montessori experience and qualifications. Lastly Mr. L Nelson, I hope you'll be pleased to hear that the very strong demand from parents may necessitate the opening of more than one Montessori primary school in Lewisham. That's something I have told the DfE I'd be prepared to work towards with other like-minded parents once we've proved the first school is successful.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 18:30

Mr Nelson, what seems to grate with you most is that someone like myself has in fact looked into Montessori as I did so when looking at nursery provision for my elder daughter, and rejected it. I decided it wasn't for us, and in addition came to the conclusion that there was no single definition of Montessori standards. Whilst I think the idea of learning with other age groups is sound, this is something which can be gained at home with siblings, or other groups outside of school. It does not need therefore to be a main focus in primary education where I do not agree it is the best way. Montessori or its interpretation has been criticised for a lack of focus on sociability. You see, I have looked into it, and find as many questions begging than ever get answered. However it seems as if you find any digression from unquestionable support for Montessori offensive and launch a verbose attack on parents like myself who actually think its not a good idea. Its a shame that this campaign and its supporters take such a dismissive view of the the opinion of local parents who do not think the way they do. You accuse me of being narrow minded because I have explored something and decided its not for me or my family and have also wider concerns for my local community and choice being restricted for my own family. You might be better off addressing some of the questions and concerns about imbalance of provision posed by a school such as this. and answering questions on admissions, rather than trying to bludgeon your way through any sign of dissent.

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