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Choosing a school for your child – alternative or traditional?


By Lakshmi Singh

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Montessori, Rudolf-Steiner, Reggio-Emilia . Even if you intend to send your children to the local primary school, chances are you will still come across these alternative education systems when doing your research.

A recent news article reports that more and more parents are placing their child on a waiting list for schools like Montessori or Steiner from birth. This increased interest in alternative education systems is part of a growing trend as Gary Le Duff, CEO of the Association of Independent Schools tells

“The public views of these alternative approaches to education have changed, and partly that’s because the young people coming out of these schools do just as well in their future education or employment.”

For Nikola Ellis, the appeal of a Montessori education was more than just the prospect of performing well in future education efforts or in the workforce. The main drawcard was the fact that Montessori offered a child-centred learning environment that encouraged children to learn independently and at their own pace.

 “It’s the opposite of the way the regular system works where everybody has to work on the same page and at the same time and they all get tested according to the same criteria.”

In Montessori, it doesn’t matter if one child takes six weeks to master a concept and another a whole year to learn it. “The fact that they give the children as much time as they need and don’t hold them back and force them to repeat a year sets it apart from a traditional school” she says.

Another aspect of Montessori is the unique nature in which some skills are taught.

“A whole range of Montessori specific apparatus designed to teach specific skill sets as well as every day household objects such as sewing materials, glass drinking vessels, iron/ironing boards and apple peelers are used for specific, supervised lessons,” she says. These materials are never available outside of one-on-one learning times and Ellis believes that it teaches children “to be mindful from an early age and to work carefully, respectfully and appropriately with all given materials.”

Amber Greene, a former Steiner school teacher, says that in a Steiner school similar principles are used.

“Equal emphasis is given to the three areas of academics, artistic and practical activities,” she says.

This triple focus makes kids balanced human beings and less prone to stress as they are exercising all their faculties.

Unlike Montessori however, Steiner school classes are guided by an adult and structured to address the three areas. The children are taught based on their “developmental characteristics”.

For instance Greene says a 5 or 6 year old may be into fairytales and magic and therefore the material taught will incorporate these to make the concept come alive.

“If you’re learning the alphabet, ‘A’ will look like an angel, so they will be learning that ‘A’ is for  ‘Angel’ and the angel went for a walk over the mountain.”

Stories and tales feature heavily in traditionally dry tasks like mathematical calculations, she says. There might be characters like “Mr. Addition and Mr. Subtraction” to appeal to the thought processes of children and put problems into their words rather than appearing totally out of context like the worksheet of maths problems seen in traditional schools.

The teaching methods continue to adapt to the growing minds of the children. For instance, 12-13 year olds are taught by referring to historical myths like Roman stories. These are usually about putting order back into life and this is something this age bracket might need given the large number of physical and mental changes that come with their age.

Both Ellis and Greene decided that what their school offered was best for their child by doing the same thing – research. And the best people to decide whether a school will be a perfect fit for their child are the parents.

The Raising Children Network advises parents to do just that : “Regardless of friends or reputation, you need to be happy that the school matches your family’s values and your child’s learning preferences, and is the one that will give your child the most opportunities to achieve in her areas of interest.”

So, by all means, consider other parents’ opinions, any available research and the “feel” of the school when helping you decide, but at the end of the day, this very personal decision should make you and your child feel comfortable with your choice of educational institution.

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Lakshmi Singh - to view all of Lakshmi's blog post click here

Lakshmi Singh is a freelance writer and mother of two young children, attempting to live a sane life in Sydney, Australia. When she is not busy chasing small people around the house, she is typing away furiously, doing endless loads of laundry or dishes, and organizing the family's events like her life depended on it. You can learn more about her crazy life by following her on twitter.


  • Fran Kendall

    Hi Lakshmi. Thanks for the interesting article. But Nikola’s point of difference is, at least in NSW , incorrect. It can be VERY difficult in public schools for your child to be allowed to repeat, even if you beg. The idea is to keep them with their social peers at almost any cost.

    • A point I also noted. I cannot remember the last time (years and years ago) I heard of a child repeating.

      I do so love that different methods are embraced more and more these days. Thankfully many ‘main stream’ schools are incorporating aspects of same as well.

  • One of the things I love most in living in a country area is the schools we have. All are wonderful with amazing, focused and enthusiastic teachers and no waiting lists. There is no pressure, simply finding the school that feels right for your child. Our school is wonderful and looks at both traditional methods and those outside the box. I don’t know much about the Montessori schools so can’t really comment on that though. But we are definitely lucky with schooling in our neck of the woods.

  • Lakshmi Singh

    Hi Anna, yes it is good to see mainstream schools being open to different methods isn’t it? I’ve heard of public schools running Montessori streams in some states and there is a project underway to incorporate a Steiner education stream within a public school in Adelaide.