A very brief history of Montessori in NZ and a few ponderings on what could be

A very brief history of Montessori in NZ and a few ponderings on what could be


Humans are a species full of contradictions. We don’t want to be too hot or too cold, We want our children to be free yet to have limits and we want innovation but not at the expense of familiarity or normality. The last of these statements aptly summarises Montessori education’s journey in New Zealand.

This is a very brief look at Montessori in NZ. If you are interested in more information the sources at the end could be useful :) 

During the early 20th Century the New Zealand political climate became more receptive to innovation in education. Political officials were looking for educational ideas that offered children freedom in their education (May, 2011). Was this the ideal time for importing the fashionable Montessori education that had become the talk of modern educational literature?

Martha Simpson, a teacher at Sydney Teachers College played a major role in thrusting Montessori education into the eyesight of politicians (May, 2011). Simpson established a Montessori class at Blackfriars Practice School in Sydney in mid 1912. In September the New Zealand Herald cited Simpson in an article about Montessori education that stated that Montessori education would revolutionise education (O’Donnell, 1996). 

The article aroused a significant amount of interest from Politicians. By coincidence Sir James Allen, Minister for Education, ended up on a ship with Simpson to Europe. Allen was meant to be going to a conference in London however Simpson’s charm or passion for Montessori led Allen to join Simpson in an unannounced visit to Montessori in Rome (May, 2011). When Allen returned to New Zealand he continued to ‘convert’ to Montessori (O’Donnell, 1996). He sent the Chief Inspector of Wanganui Schools, Mr Braik, to visit the Blackfriars School. Braik was taken with the Montessori equipment and Wanganui became an area drenched in Montessori feeling. Montessori spread throughout the country, New Entrant teachers were particularly interested in the literacy equipment being used in their classrooms but saw little need for incorporating the entirety of the Montessori philosophy. The combination of lack of equipment, training and full implementation of the entire Montessori ethos saw the experiment fizzle out. Nuns in Catholic schools maintained a remnant of Montessori in the late 1920s but by in large Montessori education did not take off in this era.

There were two other significant reasons Montessori was not a success in the early 20th century in New Zealand. Firstly the ‘individualistic approach’ of Montessori approach was seen as unable to instill values of national pride and citizenship that en masse approaches were (May, 2011). Secondly Montessori did not deliver dramatic change throughout New Zealand education as had been promoted by Media and politicians therefore it was seen as an unsuccessful experiment (May, 2011).

 The Second Wave of Montessori Education began in the 1970s. This was driven by the desire of parents for an alternative to contemporary early childhood choices (Schukar, 2004). Binda Goldsbrough had worked with Maria Montessori in her training courses. Golsborough was an immigrant to New Zealand and used her training to help her in mainstream teaching settings. In the 1970s Golsborough invited two of her Montessori colleagues to come and give training courses in New Zealand. The two workshops were very successful. This led to an uptake in correspondence training from London from where the two workshop leaders had come from. The increase in trained Montessori teachers saw a growing number of Private Montessori Pre Schools established, the successful ones being ones where there was great parental enthusiasm for the method.

Goldsbrough continued to be a driving force in regional and national Montessori education.She saw the need for Montessori unity and had little time for Montessori infighting over qualifications. To Goldsborough, training in Montessori philosophy and respect of the child was very important (O’Donnell, 1996). She worked with New Zealand Teacher’s Colleges to implement Montessori programs and also made her own training programme to help spread Montessori education.

 Meanwhile Montessori education continued to grow especially at Early Childhood level. In the late 1980s preschools opened in Auckland, Gisborne and Kapiti (O’Donnell, 1996). A very important date in Montessori education in New Zealand was 1988 when Wa Ora Montessori in Lower Hutt, 30 minutes away from the capital city of Wellington, was established. The school was set up by parents who wished to see Montessori progress past pre-school level. By 1991 the school had three pre school classes, one 6-9 class and one 9-12 class. In 1993 the school became an integrated school. As such fees became less and accessible to a wider range of parents (O’Donnell, 1996).

 The success of Wa Ora and the growth of Montessori in New Zealand is also due to the Tomorrow’s Schools educational initiative of the late 1980s. The initiative dismantled old governmental infastructure and rules and put more emphasis on Education being reactive to the needs of its communities. Parents were given more power and voice in educational choices and through the Board of Trustees models ran schools in concert with the school principal rather than being told what was happening at their school from the Ministry of Education. The parent empowerment bought about by Tomorrows schools has seen a marked increase in the number of Montessori primary classes in New Zealand. Primarily Montessori primary classes are private units attached to a state school where parents usually pay for the wages of the teacher and equipment but do not have to fund the property as it is lent from the school.

Currently New Zealand has 120 Montessori pre schools and 10 primary units, classes or schools (MANZ). Sadly though Montessori remains primarily the domain of middle and upper class families who can afford to put in the money and time to form and maintain such classes for their children. This is incredibly saddening. Wa Ora Montessori, the ‘diamond’ of Montessori education in New Zealand, teaching children from ages 0-18 is located in the heart of a very low socio-economic area yet the overwhelming majority of its students come from outside the area and the local Māori and Pasifika communities are noticeably missing from the schools race profile.

This is not an isolated case in New Zealand Montessori and leads to the question if Montessori is an education for social justice, are we really doing this in New Zealand especially with low educational success in Māori and Pasifika communities? Is having a couple of scholarship places enough for families who wouldn’t be able to afford Montessori?  

Successful education needs people with passion. Montessori is not immune from this. As stated in the introduction humans want innovation yet want comfort at the same time. To this end it is more likely to find a Montessori teacher working in an established Montessori school than establishing a Montessori school in a new area where there are no Montessori resources and a parent community that might mistake the name Montessori with the name of an up and coming rugby player. Yet this type of community is where the need is for Montessori. Due to the way that Montessori has evolved since the 1970s the emphasis is on the private individual to lead the charge for Montessori. While the government is respectful of Montessori it is not a proponent of Montessori philosophy.

This means to further Montessori education the individual has to set up a Montessori setting for children. This is fraught with practical difficulties, not least of which is funding. MANZ , the national Montessori Organisation do not have money to subsidise or advocate for new centres and instead spend their time promoting Montessori education and offering Professional Development. Some of this is at considerable cost for example attending the Annual National Conference will cost several hundred dollars.

There is a bright future for Montessori Education in New Zealand if Montessorians remember and embody the aims of Maria Montessori to form humans who are confident, independent, participatory, motivated and caring. It has been great to see a growing knowledge and understanding of Te Ao Māori in MANZ and to see their desire to reach outside of traditional Montessori circles to increase the Montessori Voice in New Zealand.

With the rise of MLE/FLE/ILEs in Mainstream education Montessori educators have a lot to offer each other in terms of educational practice. 

We must hold fast to our philosophy but be open to pioneering in places unseen and advocating for the needs of the child at local and national level.


Education Review Office (2011) Wa Ora Montessori. Retrieved from http://www.ero.govt.nz/Early-Childhood-School-Reports/School-Reports/Wa-Ora-Montessori-School-08-12-2011


Education Review Office (2013) Rata Street School. Retrieved from http://www.ero.govt.nz/Early-Childhood-School-Reports/School-Reports/Rata-Street-School-04-11-2013

MANZ Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand. (___). Montessori in New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.montessori.org.nz/montessori-newzealand

May, H. (2011). I am five and I go to school. Otago, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

O’Donnell, D. (1996) Montessori Education in Australia and New Zealand. Glebe: Wide and Woolley Pty.

Shukar, M.J. (2004). The Historical Evolution and Contemporary Status of

Montessori Schooling in New Zealand (Doctorate thesis, Massey university, Palmerston North, New Zealand) Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10179/2117


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