Classroom tour: The Gower School, London

Wherever I go in the world I love to take the time to visit Montessori classrooms. My recent trip to Europe offered Montessori experiences in every destination we visited – we started with the International Congress in Prague, then moved on to the home of the original Casa dei Bambini in Rome before visiting Maria Montessori’s study in Amsterdam. Our next port was London and this provided the perfect opportunity to seek out a school tour. There are many Montessori environments operating in London but I decided to approach a school that was renowned not only within the Montessori community but had also been validated by the recognition of the ‘non-Montessori’ school standards. The Gower School certainly fit that criteria, as it is a setting accredited by the Montessori Evaluation and Accreditation Board and rated as ‘Outstanding and Excellent’ in every category of their Independent Schools Association report. I was aware, however, that the timing of my trip happened to coincide with school holidays in the UK. So I contacted The Gower School hopeful that I might be able to visit but aware that the timing might have been a hurdle. Imagine my delight when I received a warm and welcoming response from Jacqui Tsang, Head of Nursery, who assured me that although the school would be running their ‘holiday program’ during my visit she would still be more than happy to take me on a tour. And so it was that on the 11th of August, 2017, I hopped on a bus to Islington to visit The Gower School.

I should say - I'm a better teacher than photographer so my images probably won't completely do justice to this wonderful school, but I hope they offer you an insight into the beautiful environments that have been developed at The Gower School. You won't see children in these images, as we did not wish to infringe upon their privacy, but I am sure you will appreciate these aesthetically amazing spaces!

Andrew came along but when a cafe caught his eye he decided that he might indulge in some brunch rather than join me in the classroom!

 

The Gower School was founded in 2000 by Emma Gowers (hence the name). At that time it catered to an inaugural class of just 4 children in a converted church (the building we'll 'walk through' in a moment). Interest in the school grew as news of its quality spread and today The Gower School stretches across 2 campuses for 0-6 year olds as well as a primary school. Throughout my tour I tried to take note of the features that have made The Gower School so successful. Certainly the authentic passion of its founder seems to have been the driving force behind its overall level of quality. I didn't have the opportunity to meet Emma but Jacqui spoke incredibly highly of her. Emma's presence and vision could be felt despite her physical absence on the day I was there. The classrooms even feature little touches of Emma's personal influence, such as the French names for the classrooms (and the fact that French lessons are offered to children) which nod at Emma’s own cultural heritage. Having such a dedicated and visionary leader is certainly vital for a school's success and longevity (which certainly resonates with me, as I know our own centres owe so much to the guiding light offered by my Montessori mum Barbara!) but there are many other ingredients that result in the level of excellence that The Gower School has achieved. One huge element is the fact that most of the teachers have a long-standing relationship with the school - and therefore with each other. Their loyalty shows and there is an easy-going energy and palpable sense of collegiality between them. Having long-serving teachers also means that these 'architects of the environment' really know the physical spaces and have learned how to get the most out of the layout and features of each room. This is such an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of a high-quality and functional setting. Knowing your space, and understanding how to use it, is incredibly powerful since we know that the environment itself is highly influential. It is the child’s “third teacher” (the first being the child himself or herself, the second being the adult guide). There is a strong sense of community within and around the school. They build connections to the locale through visits to the park across the road and support of the local parents through special classes such as infant massage and Gymboree that are offered not only to enrolled families but to any interested parents. These are the intangible features that stood out to be as instrumental in making the school what it is. There were, of course, many other qualities that were plainly evident right before my eyes and these are what I'll share with you now as we take our photo tour! Welcome to The Gower School, come on in...

The first classroom I visited was a 3-6 room. Keep in mind that by this point I'd already been away from my own 3-6 room for nearly 3 weeks (my longest absence in 12 years!) so as soon as I stepped inside I felt like I was taking a gulp of cool water after wandering through the hot desert! I had this absolute sense of 'coming home' even though I'd never been in this specific space before in my life. 

The children were investigating some special projects during that period as an addition to their ordinary Montessori program. They had just finished exploring the theme of fashion to coincide with fashion week and were now looking at influential artists and art styles. My favourite, since it was so quintessentially 'London', were the series of little 'Banksys'!

Anyone who has visited London will know that space is extremely hard to find. It is a crowded place that is not built for claustrophobics! I was surprised to learn that the UK doesn't have any specific requirements about the amount of outdoor space necessary for a preschool or school. This is in stark contrast to Australia where our early childhood regulations require a minimum of 7 square metres of outdoor space per child. This is hard enough to find in Australia (particularly in the areas that demand for care is highest) so I can understand why these expectations would be unrealistic in a place like London. Nonetheless The Gower School have made exceptional use of the outdoor space that they do have. It is a comfortable area that has been cleverly segmented to offer a range of physical experiences, from an area for sports through to a more natural space for gardening and sensory exploration. They also make use of the local landscape by regularly visiting the oval just across the road.

After enjoying the sunshine outdoors we moved to one of the light-filled toddler classrooms on the upper level of the building. 

I immediately noticed that it was furnished with the same Community Playthings series that we feature in our own toddler rooms at Rosemont House Montessori back in Adelaide! I guess great minds think alike!
I loved that these classrooms looked out not only onto the school's own outdoor area but also took in an aspect of the neighbouring houses. There is no denying the close proximity to these residences so it seemed appropriate that the school had so openly embraced this connection. 

As Jacqui guided me through the different classrooms I noticed a consistency in the pedagogical values and aesthetic inclinations, but subtle touches gave each space had its own unique 'identity'. 

This particular room must be set up by the "Jess" of The Gower School as it had a particular emphasis on precision. Ohhhh the sense of order! So satisfying and appealing!

Jacqui informed me that the quaint wash stations were specially designed and handmade for the school. 

As you may have noticed by now, the layout of each room is quite different. This is the inevitable result of moving into an existing building and adapting its spaces to become classrooms. This is the case back home in my own centre, Jescott Montessori, and so I am well acquainted with the double edged sword of trying to transform an existing space. It certainly offers a lot of opportunity but it can also be a little frustrating when you have to react to what you have rather than being able to design your absolute ideal. That being said, I love those occasional moments of frustration because they are the mother of creativity and ingenuity! Some of my favourite features of Jescott are those that developed to overcome the limitations of our space and I could see similar inventive solutions at The Gower School. 
Then it was time to cross the road!

The Gower School became so popular that its original building just couldn't house all the eager children, but fortunately a redevelopment just across the road provided the perfect opportunity for this community to grow. The original campus was originally a church building and each classroom has been cleverly and creatively designed to fit within that existing space, whereas the second space has been purpose built to the exact specifications of The Gower School. The two settings act as living proof that both of these styles are equally valid. There is not a 'better' campus - they are both beautiful, inviting and lovingly prepared and have their own charms. 

This library space was simply beautiful. The pops of colour created a fun atmosphere but the cool tone of the lighting kept it feeling calm and cosy. 

I love that the 'Care of the Self' curriculum extends to each child having their own toothbrush in the bathroom! I also appreciate the subtle but powerful touches of inclusiveness, such as the multilingual labelling (as shown on the bathroom cubicle). The specific languages that feature are not randomly chosen - they're selected according to the cultural make up of the school community. 

The 3-6 classroom in the newer campus occupied a large, open layout but the teachers have cleverly delineated various areas using the furnishings and materials. 

When I saw this sun and globe at the circle in anticipation for an upcoming birthday celebration my heart sang (my voice nearly did too - there's a song that accompanies the birthday ceremony!) This is one of the traditions that is undeniably "Montessori" - something that has evolved within our own "culture" and spread around the world to link us. 

This was one of many 'Montessori universalities' that I noticed during the day. There are countless others that instantaneously connect us - from the presence of a Pink Tower to the shared challenge of trying to explain to 'non-Montessori' school inspectors why our young children are using real glasses instead of plastic cups! There is no doubt in my mind that Montessori has become a ‘cultural group’. It is a shared experience, a set of customs and beliefs, that binds the members of a ‘tribe’ whose members can be found across all corners of the globe.

This is something that particularly resonates with me because I don’t really identify as belonging to many other cultural groups. I am not part of any specific religious group and my ethnic heritage doesn’t offer much in the way of overtly identifiable traits or traditions (apart from a Yorkshire Pudding and an understanding that 'put wood in't'oil' means 'shut the door'!) So being part of the Montessori community is an incredibly important aspect of my overall personal identity and my understanding of my place in the world. It's not everything that I am, but it is a big part of me and Montessori has had a huge influence in my life. Connecting with other people who share my experiences, and seeing other environments that feel like home to me, has quite a spiritual impact on me. If I landed on an unknown planet, where not a single thing around me felt familiar, the alien lifeforms would only have to approach me with a pink cube in their hands for me to instantly feel secure in their presence! "These", I would think, "are my people." 

Glowing with my sense of belonging to this global community we wandered into the last classroom of the tour, another toddler area.

I'd seen all the classrooms but my tour wasn't over. Jacqui had mentioned earlier in the day that the school had been taking inspiration from the 'Forest School' movement that encourages deep engagement with nature, experience with risk-taking and lots of unstructured and unhurried time in the great outdoors. The Gower School is fortunate enough to be situated just a short stroll from a stunning field which the children regularly visit. That morning they were busy cooking up a feast in a fire pit so we decided to go and join them. Along the way we collected my infinitely patient husband who, by then, had finished two brunches and a coffee before soaking up some Vitamin D while he waited for me.  

It was the perfect weather for a day in the park - blue skies and sunshine as far as the eye could see.

The children were gathered together just a few metres away from the fire, with some of them arranging the ingredients of their meals ready to add it to the fire and others already hungrily devouring their cooked food. 

A short distance from the fire was an enchanted forest (okay, it was some trees and grass but the day was so full of Montessori magic that it felt like a little enchanted forest to me!) The teachers had adeptly balanced safety with opportunity (or, in Montessori terms, offered 'freedom within limits) by using blue ropes to identify a safe zone for the children to play in. Within that space the children could explore freely and spontaneously, but they knew to remain within the limits so that they were still close enough to be seen and supported by the adults.

The children were welcome to exercise their own creativity and follow their instincts when exploring the space, but the teachers also provided some provocations. A range of materials were provided that the children could utilise and adapt to inform or support their natural explorations. 

After enjoying the sunshine and smokey barbecue for a while I realised that I had taken up a lot of Jacqui's time. I know how precious that time is when you have a school to run but she never for a moment made me feel hurried during our morning together. It felt invigorating to connect with Jacqui -  our words tumbled out and weaved together as we discovered how many aspects of our daily lives were identical despite occurring on opposite sides of the world. Jacqui's love of her work, and her loyalty to the school that has become her professional home, were inspirational. I wish I had a slightly more flattering photo to commemorate that new connection but the flawlessly sunny day resulted in a slightly awkward squint for me in this picture! The smile on my face tells the story though, as it was such a blissful way for me to spend one of my days in London. I couldn't agree more with the sign that sits above us in this photo - The Gower School is certainly outstanding in every area!

To learn more about The Gower School (or to enquire about enrolments if you're lucky enough to live nearby!) please visit their website:

https://www.thegowerschool.co.uk

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