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Tuesday, 18 December 2018 02:00 am

Montessori now available through to high school level

WA ORA School in Naenae will offer approved NCEA qualifications from next year, the first school of its kind to do so since the closure of Athena Montessori College in 2008.

Athena Montessori College, which delivered NCEA approved qualifications, and the Montessori College of Auckland both closed in 2008 due to funding difficulties. 

There has been no Montessori high school in the country teaching to students up to age 18 since.

Wa Ora originally taught from age zero to 12, but in 2007 a committee was formed to add classes for high school-age.

It will get its first six NCEA-age students next year.

Principal Jan Gaffney says she was pleasantly surprised that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority accredited the school so quickly.

“It’s so far out from anything that’s been done that we weren’t sure that they would be able to take a risk.”

Parents wanted a school which offers children the opportunity to experience Montessori education throughout their school years and get a qualification which universities and employers will accept, she says.

Montessori Aotearoa executive officer Ana Pickering says there is no danger of Wa Ora closing too, as it is a public school with strong staffing, and can rely on the primary school for enrolments.

“They’re building on a good base of an existing school, so they can do their enrolments in a much more measured kind of way.”

She says very few places internationally combine the Montessori style of teaching with nationally recognised qualifications, and it will be interesting for the education industry to see the different approach.

The school is intended to be accessible to everyone, so it doesn’t charge fees, but asks for a donation of about $600 per term or $2,400 a year.

Ms Pickering says finding Montessori-trained teachers is difficult because there is a big demand internationally, especially from China.

Wa Ora has a different strategy, finding staff before sending them for training overseas.

Ministry of Education secondary outcomes manager Tony Turnock says the Montessori philosophy and the national curriculum have similarities in terms of their principles, vision and flexibility.

Parent Sarah Pinfold says she is really enthusiastic about the whole thing, as the school encourages pupils to reach their potential by respecting each individual child.

“For students to be able to go through their whole high school in one community is brilliant.”

She says the Montessori philosophy is really valuable for teaching academic and social skills during the challenging years of adolescence.

According to the Montessori Aotearoa website, Montessori-style schooling was created by Dr. Maria Montessori who began the first class (casa dei bambini, or house of children) in Rome in 1907.

“Today Montessori is the single largest educational philosophy in the world with 22,000 Montessori schools in more than 100 countries on six continents,” the website says.

Maria Montessori (image from Montessori Aotearoa)

“Montessori worked from the basis of observation and she notes that it was this system that fed curriculum development. For example, she began to see that eight year olds were interested and able to do algebra and problems of square root.

“Montessori once said, ‘to segregate by age is one of the cruelest and most inhuman things one can do’.”

Wa Ora principal Jan Gaffney says that in Montessori teaching, classes are separated into three-yearly age groups (zero to three, four to six, etc) to provide a social learning environment which allows children to explore.

She says the 12-18 age groups need positive adult role models, so the school provides them with a high number of teachers, with four teachers for about 30 students next year.

“They need smaller classes, and to be able to ask questions and not appear dumb. You need to have trust that the person who’s teaching you sees you and knows you and respects you, and the people in your learning group do as well.”

She thinks NCEA’s focus on concepts instead of content and the ability for teachers to write their own assessments make it a much better fit with Montessori than the old school certificate system.

Montessori-style teaching focuses on self-directed learning, with specific tasks for students to complete rather than subject matter to learn.

“Maths is not useful for maths’ sake, you know? It serves a purpose in the wider world and you need to know what it is,” says Ms Gaffney.

Assessment will be based on a total of four to eight big projects throughout the year, each one putting NCEA credits towards multiple subjects.

This means students won’t have a choice in which subjects they will take, but Ms Gaffney says that will give students more options when they leave school.

“[Gaining] credits is not going to be the point, it’s going to be the subjects they have,” she says.

“Most kids don’t know what they’re going to do at 14, I mean, 14? Give me a break here.”

The school is planning to have students dual-enrolled in their first year of university while they complete their final school year.

Total student numbers are expected to grow beyond the current 230 as a result of the addition of the high school, but the school board hopes to keep the growth slow.

A neighbouring property has been bought to allow for the growth, and the possibility of future acquisitions is being considered.

Ms Gaffney says only four of this year’s 25 high school students came from a different primary school, and it’s likely there won’t be space for any such enrolments next year.

“[It’s] a terrible thing because around about the age of eight, people look at what’s happening for their child and they go, ‘oh I need to find something else’ and they come here and we say, ‘oh, sorry, there’s no room’.”

She is excited about the prospect of teaching the new curriculum, however.

“The programme is incredible and I can’t wait to make it happen.”

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