17/03/2014

Welcome to the Montessori Schools Conference 2014

The past year has been characterised by a large number of government consultations affecting early years and primary work and involving several government departments. Besides the Department for Education, the Department for  Health and Local Government and Communities and the Treasury have all been involved. It is intriguing that statements about joined up thinking across the Government have not featured in the various statements. However it is clear that the intention is to focus on enabling mothers to get back into work sooner and to direct funding and other arrangements on ways of supporting this, rather than an education-led approach. MSA has commented at length on all of the consultations and we are grateful for members having taken the chance to add their views to ours when submitting responses to the government. Providing members with draft responses to which they can then add their own comments is a very useful way of raising Montessoris profile within departments.

Evidence of the success of this approach came last Summer when I was invited to the DfE to discuss assessment on school entry and the regulation of childcare. Given the issues which have arisen this year, it is all the more important that we maintain our profile as a strong professional organisation representing Montessori interests.  A long running issue remains the problem of schools and pre-schools which use the Montessori name without having any true Montessori practices. The extent of misunderstanding was shown by one father who thought that Montessori was a franchise when he said, If McDonalds can get it right why cant Montessori? Other parents have thought that they can transfer from one setting to another without forfeiting any deposit fees. In all cases we try to resolve the problem, but most settings involved in such issues are not MSA members. Another issue has been the number of English settings judged to be inadequate by Ofsted.   Even though the numbers are smallnot into double figures and none have been MEAB accredited settingsseveral issues have emerged. The limited role of staff in planning and assessment, including the absence of a key worker system has been a common feature in most of the reports. Clearly this suggests a firming up of Ofsteds stance on staff roles and practices. We have also sought to work with the Discovery New School which was the first free school to go into special measures and face closure. The original leadership did not follow up on our offers of support when it was set up, but the new leadership has begun to work with us and take up our offers of help. Unfortunately this may well have come too late to benefit the school, but it reinforces our advice to the Department for Education on the need to ensure that such schools must have a clear curriculum statement showing how they will address the national expectations regarding childrens achievement and also to have suitably qualified staff.

We continue to work with members who have issues about inspections. We have successfully challenged inspection judgements where these were inappropriate and it is good that the various inspection agencies take our comments sufficiently seriously to undertake reviews before judgements are published.

The MEAB accreditation scheme continues to grow with over 150 accredited settings and schools. It is very clear that accreditation provides significant evidence of quality when settings and schools are inspected and as we continue to accredit settings for the second cycle of our visits, improvement is very evident. It is a tribute to your professionalism that you accept comments so readily and are willing to act on suggestions.

Following last years conference we held a short meeting for people interested or involved in childminding. We thought about eight might attend, and were surprised to have 24 present. The childminding group has now met several times and we are working with them to identify how we can support them most effectively.

The Primary group, led by Sarah Rowledge, has had another successful year. Its meeting last September was attended by staff from schools across the country as well as visitors from Holland and Sweden.

After several years trying to develop our links with colleagues in Europe, we have been pleased to work with colleagues in the Czech Republic who are seeking European funding to enable some of them to visit English settings in the autumn. In fact so many wanted to come for the weeks visit that a second group is proposed for spring 2015. We are also in discussions with colleagues in Slovakia and the Netherlands. Besides this work, Barbara and I are working with a small UK charity which supports Montessori nurseries in Tanzania. We will be visiting there later this spring at their request to look at the quality of their Montessori practicesas the nurseries work in Swahili, it will be interesting to see and hear about their work!

I am most grateful to the members of the MSA National Council. Their commitment forms the backbone of the organisation and without them our work would be impossible. We were pleased to welcome Andrew Parmley, chairman of the St Nicholas Trustees to our January meeting and the link with the Trustees is a most valuable part of our development. Last May we conducted a major review of our activities, producing a four year plan for moving forward and setting targets for future work. We have begun to implement this as part of our desire to establish more focused management of the organisation and to maximise the value which we provide for the funding we receive from the Trustees. Part of this work is to link more closely with the other elements of the St Nicholas familyMCI, so ably led by Penny John, and MEAB with Barbara Isaacs at the helm. In the past five years we have moved from being a small and rather introspective organisation to a much more significant and proactive association and we continue to work hard to provide benefits to our members and sustain our impact on government policies and thinking. Much of this is due to Kristine Largos excellent organisational skills and attention to detail, as well as to Barbara Isaacss knowledge and skills as a leading international Montessori practitioner.

I would also like to thank our preferred partners Early Years direct, dot2dot, and bag2school for their continued support and hope that you all enjoy the conference and take the opportunity to meet colleagues as well as to benefit from our speakers contributions.

Best wishes,

Martin Bradley