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I'm sure I mentioned that we recently went to see a school that we really want Alfie to attend from nursery onwards. It was the sort of school that is just so incredibly perfect you can't do anything more than look upward and mouth "thank you".

Then you look at the price list and it's all "Ummm, excuse me, I think there's a typo here. Are you sure the decimal point is supposed to go there? Really? Do you take kidneys?"

When I was looking online for photos to add to this post, I stumbled across another blog of an ex pupil of the school.

Now many years out of school, she wrote this:

"I think I was happy there because my life was full and well-rounded: I was stretched academically and allowed to develop socially and emotionally. I liked, admired and respected the headteachers and the large majority of the school staff, and I have always considered myself lucky to have been there."

I can't believe how little that has in common with my memory of school life.

The school is a Montessori school, and the more I look into the teaching philosophy, the more I question not just the values of traditional education, but the basic premise of what it means to "succeed"

There was a page pinned to the board by the entrance of the nursery. It was basically a creed by which the school operates, and it defined what constituted "a Montessori child". The one I remember being most surprised at was "a Montessori child is not competitive".


It took me a while to process what that really meant, and as it happens I had another jab in the ribs just today when a friend at work talked about her son, and how she felt he ought to be pushed to compete at school.

Why does the very idea of that make my hackles instantly rise?

The fact is there will only, by definition, be one person who is ever "the best" at any one thing. For that person, the thousands of people who tried and failed define that success, validate it in fact. But what is the cost for those who have tried and failed? Why do I need to teach my child that in order to be happy he has to be the best, knowing that it's 99% certain he will fail?

Keith and I trust Alfie as an individual. We have seen that given the opportunity, he is already well able to demonstrate a strong opinion on what and how much he eats. We treasure that. Watching our son investigate new foods and go through a process of evaluation and decision is fascinating. Seeing his skills develop through a process of trial and error fills me with pride at what a clever individual he is.

I am less impressed at the skill he has learned which involves unscrewing the baby gate from the wall, but I suppose them’s the breaks when you encourage autonomous learning.

It feels counter intuitive to say that after 3 years of taking this approach, he is going to have to fit into a model of education which can broadly be described as “one size fits all”.

Because it doesn't: It fits a tiny number of children and all the others have to either wear thick socks or use a shoehorn.

It feels far more in tune with how we treat Alfie to allow him to choose his educational path; to have access to inspiring surroundings and adults who are there to keep him safe while he investigates.

I don’t worry that he will sit idle and learn nothing because children are naturally curious, and Alfie especially so. He will happily spend an hour in his room playing on his own. If you creep up and look through the door most of the time you will see a little guy focused intently on either a toy or a piece of furniture, moving it, manipulating it, learning how it works, and in the case of his current obsession – doors – learning not to leave your fingers in the way. Klutz.

The purpose of education sadly, is rarely as an exercise in itself, but to prepare children for life as an adult. The single biggest challenge I hear to the idea of a Montessori approach is that competition is “the reality” of life and that traditional education is a much better preparation for that.

I don’t think I agree with that idea. Competition for resource is certainly not a new idea, and once, absolutely, it was all about survival of the fittest. I don’t agree that it still holds true in the modern western world however.

I don’t have to get up in the morning and fight for food or water. I suppose I might have to compete for a parking space at work if I were late, but once at my desk I certainly don’t have to compete with anyone or anything in the course of an honest day’s work. In actual fact, on the rare occasion that I do need to compete for any reason, I’m left feeling out of sorts for the rest of the day.

The point is that today the idea of life being competitive is useful as a tool to encourage a certain set of behaviours summarised by the term “consumer”. If I am trained from a young age to compete with those around me, I will want a better car/ house, that means/ demonstrates I earn better money, buy better clothes, etc. etc. you get the idea.

If I reject that ideal, does that make me a penniless hobo? Not last time I looked. Having bought into the “rat race” and also rejected it, the latter feels by far the best.

Competition triggers primeval physical reactions, such as adrenaline, which you need to be sharp and focused and to pump you up with the desire to win. Adrenaline is not a surgeon’s scalpel though, it is a wooden club, it is an all or nothing reaction, and that is an exhausting way to live.

I’m not saying that a Montessori education is going to be single handedly responsible for removing Alfie’s competitive streak - If he is one ounce his father he will never be able to walk past a board game without the urge to kick ass - but I do really hope it helps give him a sense of perspective. At least then if he chooses to be competitive in his life it is because he has chosen that path for himself.

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