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Alternative education: what are the benefits?

Teacher talking to child
We take a look at alternative schools and what they have to offer your child.

They begin education the earliest, they are the most tested and they spend the most days in school. Judging by these findings, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the average UK state-educated child.

The stats may explain why there’s been an increased interest in alternative education. Over 50,000 children are now home educated in the UK, while there are increasing numbers of Steiner, Montessori and small community schools cropping up, often as part of the free schools movement.

What’s taught in these schools?

Steiner schools encourage learning through play until children are seven and believe that they should write before they can read.

Montessori education is characterised by multi-age classrooms and special learning materials to isolate each learning quality individually.

Small community schools are committed to small-scale learning communities based on the values of democracy, fairness and respect.

These schools all serve to nurture every part of the child – creative, emotional, moral, spiritual, as well as intellectual and physical. They encourage pupils to choose their own course of learning and not focus purely on achieving academic success. Subsequently, and perhaps most importantly, there are no tests, just learning for the sake of learning.

What are the benefits?

Dr Richard House, a Steiner school teacher, says, “Socially progressive schools maximise the likelihood of children growing up to have a responsible and mature understanding of freedom, and therefore being able to exercise it effectively and maturely in their lives. This contrasts with mainstream schooling, which increasingly seems geared towards to churning out people who will preserve the status quo and fit into the existing system.”

To some parents the idea of a ‘socially progressive’ school may sound like an excuse for kids to do what they like all day but Phillip Martyn, a teacher at the Steiner Waldorf School of South West London, refutes this suggestion.

“It is not at all a free and easy education,” he says. “Steiner set out the curriculum approach, which the schools follow, indicating what subjects should be introduced at various ages. The major difference is that the children do not start reading and writing until they are seven, which is of course normal in many parts of the world other than UK.”

The best choice?

The downside to alternative education is that it receives no state funding and therefore the vast majority require private funding or charitable donations. A lack of interest from the Government may also explain a lack of empirical evidence for or against alternative education.

However, studies have been conducted in the US where there are already 5,000 Montessori schools. One study compared Montessori and state-educated children and showed that, in the early years, Montessori children performed better on standardised tests in reading and maths, engaged in more positive interaction in the playground, and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control.  At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.

As interest in alternative education continues to increase, the Government is now being forced to sit up and take notice of these kinds of schools.

Other resources:

Find out more about different kinds of alternative schooling through these links:

  • Education Otherwise offers advice and information for parents considering home education in the UK. TheSchoolRun also has an extensive home education offering.
  • The Human Scale Education Movement works with schools and parents to promote learning environments where children and young people are known and valued as individuals.
  • Sands School is one of only two democratic schools in the United Kingdom. There is no headteacher and no hierarchy: the school is jointly managed by students and staff.
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