Montessori closes attainment gap for pre-school children

Monday, November 27, 2017

An American study in academic journal Frontiers in Psychology has found that Montessori early years settings can improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.

  • Montessori found to narrow the gap between poorer children and their peers
  • Call to implement Montessori more widely in the UK

The study, ‘Montessori Preschool elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes’, was carried out in a high-poverty American city which offered random lottery-based admission to two state-funded Montessori pre-schools.

Researchers tested 70 children from these schools and 71 ‘control’ children from other, non-Montessori pre-schools at four time periods, including once at the start of their first semester at the age of three, and once at the end of pre-school three years later.

The tests assessed a variety of cognitive and socio-emotional skills including:

  • Academic achievement.
  • Theory of mind.
  • Social competence.
  • Executive function.
  • Mastery orientation (a belief that with effort one can master challenges and increase ability, as opposed to performance orientation based on a desire to look good).
  • School enjoyment.
  • Creativity.

Although both groups were equal at the start of pre-school, the Montessori group consistently advanced at a higher rate than the control group in academic achievement, theory of mind and school enjoyment, and at certain time points in executive function and mastery orientation.

The groups remained largely equivalent across the four test times in social competence and creativity.

Researchers suggested higher academic achievement could be as a result of highly ordered Montessori materials and environment; more school enjoyment could stem from the choice provided by a Montessori environment; and displays of mastery orientation could be due to the lack of extrinsic rewards in Montessori programmes.

The researchers added that the Montessori approach of combining different ages in one classroom could help to inform theory of mind due to the need to consider other children’s emotions and mental states.


Montessori also made ‘substantial headway’ in reducing the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. Montessori children from higher-income families were the highest performers in academic achievement by the end of the study, but the children from lower-income families in this group performed better than those in control schools.

At the beginning of the study, there was no difference between the academic achievement scores of the children growing up in lower-income households in each group. However, by the end of the study, the lower-income Montessori children had ‘significantly higher’ academic achievement than the lower-income control group, and the study showed that the correlation between achievement and income was halved by a Montessori pre-school education.

Co-author of the report Professor Angeline S. Lillard at the University of Virginia said, ‘I hope the findings will give more people the confidence to implement authentic Montessori pre-schools, ones that closely follow the programme she laid out in her books. The two schools used in the study were recognised by the Association Montessori Internationale. We don’t have lottery studies from Montessori schools that implement the programme differently and lack that recognition, but I have done studies showing that when the set of Montessori materials, and therefore lessons, is watered down with conventional materials, children do less well on a variety of outcomes.’

John Siraj-Blatchford, honorary professor in early childhood studies at Plymouth University’s Institute of Education, said, ‘In the UK, there are many different forms of established practice – Reggio, HighScope, Montessori and so on – but none are copyrighted. This means many settings can use the name but do not always have the staff and resources to deliver it. It becomes just a marketing thing.’

He recommended the use of the Montessori St Nicholas charity’s Montessori Evaluation and Accreditation Board, a scheme that aims to ensure schools using the Montessori name are offering an officially endorsed level of education and care.


Professor Siraj-Blatchford added, ‘The highlight of this research is that Montessori is narrowing the gap – a priority for everyone.

‘Similar research has been carried out in this country but it has been inconclusive as most Montessori pre-schools are in affluent areas so don’t show value added. Montessori was originally set up in order to be used in disadvantaged areas, that is what made it different from other alternative providers. It clearly works, so getting it into the mainstream has got to be a good thing. It is a matter of getting more in the right places.’

Professor Lillard said, ‘Montessori pre-school in the public sector is challenging to implement because school districts want Montessori schools to behave more like conventional ones, even though Montessori appears to have the better outcomes. I look on conventional education as we know it as a failed experiment we’ve been conducting for the past 150 years.

‘Montessori education was developed as an aid to life, not a school programme, and I think both in theory and in evidence, implementing it more widely makes very good sense.’


Attempts to introduce Montessori to English state schools have not always been successful. Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, the first state-funded primary to adopt a whole-school Montessori approach, closed in 2014 after being placed in special measures by Ofsted.

Two of the four maintained primary schools in England to first use elements of Montessori, Carleton St Hilda’s in Blackpool and Spitalgate in Grantham, have since abandoned the practice.

barbaraisaacs20130708111921967Barbara Isaacs (pictured right), chief education officer at Montessori St Nicholas, said the approach required a strong support system from a school’s senior management.

‘Montessori has thrived in areas where the head has fully understood the benefits of Montessori and committed fully to its implementation and to training,’ she said. ‘In schools where the head teacher has gone or there have been significant changes in senior management, effectively the interest in Montessori goes.’

The other two maintained primary schools in England to first follow Montessori retain at least some elements of the method. Gorton Mount Primary Academy, which in 2005 became the first state school to introduce Montessori since the 1920s, continues to use the approach in the Foundation Stage and has established an in-house training programme for staff; while Stebbing Primary School in Essex uses the independent Montessori nursery on its site to inform practice throughout the school.

Meanwhile, with the help of Montessori St Nicholas, Aldersbrook Primary School in Wanstead has introduced Montessori education to its Foundation Stage, supported by an in-house trainer.

Ms Isaacs said the key was to make Montessori self-sustaining in schools, and Montessori St Nicholas is hoping to set up a training hub in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire next year.

‘If we identify trainers to train others, that is how we ensure ongoing provision, especially in the early years where staff change so quickly,’ she said.

‘The quality of a Montessori learning environment is clear; offering children the freedom to choose but also making the environment predictable. This predictability gives a feeling of security to children who are sometimes from chaotic backgrounds, and allows them to know what to expect. It gives them time for themselves and places an emphasis on respect shown by adults towards children, which gives children a positive model of human relationships.’

  • Download the study here

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