The Telegraph
Wednesday , April 16 , 2014
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First b’day and ready for school

Oh Maria! Montessori is feeling the strain.

Some of Calcutta’s established Montessori institutions have lowered their admission age and reinvented themselves as playhouses to retain their relevance in the face of competition from reputable high schools that now admit kids as small as two-and-a-half years old.

The La Martiniere schools, Modern High, Sri Sri Academy and South City International are among a clutch of institutions that take in toddlers, including some who have barely learnt to talk.

Mongrace Montessori House on Short Street, Dew Drops in Bhowanipore and Disharee Montessori House on Ballygunge Circular Road have been admitting children even younger, starting from about 12 months.

The mother-toddler programme at Mongrace is for kids in the age group 12 to 21 months. For about a decade now, the school has had a playgroup for kids aged between 22 months and two-and-a-half years.

Dew Drops and Disharee Montessori House admit students earliest at 16 months. Kislaya Playhouse and Montessori on Loudon Street have been taking in kids at 18 months since 2010.

“We have been forced to lower our entry age to survive. If I don’t take them in, others will. Who would then bring their children to our school, knowing that they can’t get into high schools from here?” said Reeta Basu, the director of Disharee, which opened 28 years ago.

La Martiniere started taking in kids at 24 months-plus in 2004. Modern High has been admitting kids at the age of two-and-a-half years since 2006, South City International School since 2009 and Sri Sri Academy from 2010. Calcutta Girls and Apeejay take in children at the age of three years-plus.

At Mongrace, the mother-toddler programme started a year ago as an innovative way of educating moms along with their kids thrice a week. While the programme is meant to “make mothers aware of Montessori methods”, director Suman Sood admits that it is a “side effect” of high schools lowering their entry age.

But what do children who are barely a year and some months old learn in school? “At the entry age, the school is basically little more than a playhouse,” a teacher said.

Montessori study materials are not for children below the age group 24 months to two-and-a-half years. So schools keep the younger kids occupied through activities like teaching them table manners, palm and thumb printing, beading and even how to pour a glass of water.

Some schools improvise the standard Montessori methods such as converting a four-piece puzzle into a two-piece one for the benefit of underage students.

Under the changed system, Montessori training invariably remains incomplete. “In the Montessori system, education starts with practical life exercises, followed by sensorial training. By the time students start on language and arithmetic, it’s time for them to move to high school,” said Kusum Bhandari, director of Bal Nilaya that was started in 1962.

Since some high schools take in kids aged three-plus, parents are under pressure to ensure they get admission to the schools of their choice. The longer they delay the switch, fewer their options with every passing year.

Montessori schools too are under pressure to keep up with the catch-them-young trend and the enthusiasm of parents. Disharee starts “preparing” kids for writing at three years, which used to be three years and six months not long ago. Kislaya gives its students an exercise book for colouring instead of pieces of paper so that they can carry it back home to show their parents.

Parents want to be more involved in school activities and are seemingly happy if they are indulged. Vandana Kanoria of Kislaya rues that “seriousness has gone out (of Montessori education) and a lot of it is for show”.

Many schools organise multiple events involving parents but still receive requests for such programmes to be held more frequently. “We have to tell them that there are just 180 working days in a year and such activities eat into class hours,” the director of a south Calcutta school said.

Around 30 per cent of children leave Montessori school by two-and-a-half years, according to data available with Dew Drops. The majority make the switch to high school at three-and-a-half to four years.

“Earlier, we could retain children till the age of six with advanced Montessori study materials. Now most of them leave by four. It used to be unthinkable to take in a child at 18 months but now we do make such small compromises with a lot of reluctance because of the changed circumstances,” said Kanoria of Kislaya, a 32-year-old institution.

High schools have their reasons for lowering their entry limit, one of which is to ostensibly ensure proper pre-primary orientation. “My logic is that wherever they are geographically, it’s okay as long as they follow the right method. But many of the schools are not monitored properly,” said Devi Kar, director of Modern High.

Heads of various institutions favour a uniform cut-off age for admission, if not a set of rules to end the cut-throat competition that puts pressure on school, parent and child.

Mongrace Montessori House

  • When: Established in 1964
  • Where: Short Street
  • What: Started mother-toddler programme for kids in the age group 12 to 21 months a year ago; playgroup for children in the age group 22 months to two-and-a-half years

Disharee Montessori House

  • When: Established in 1986
  • Where: Ballygunge Circular Road
  • What: Takes in students at 16 months, improvises Montessori study material for younger kids to be able to grasp what is taught and starts preparing them for writing at three years, against the earlier norm of three-and-a-half years

Kislaya Playhouse and Montessori

  • When: Established in 1982
  • Where: Loudon Street
  • What: Has been admitting children at 18 months since 2010


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