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Like Prince William and Kate, we chose a Montessori school

Northern Ireland parents tell Kerry McKittrick why they decided to send their little ones to the same type of exclusive nursery favoured by the royal couple.

Prince George appeared on the family Christmas card with his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and his little sister Charlotte. Yet again, the third in line to the throne stole the show with a head of golden curls and a cheeky grin.

But the news about the little prince that really hit the headlines is that in January he will be starting his education. And instead of choosing the most exclusive, London-based nursery school that money can buy, Prince George will be attending Westacre Montessori School, close to the family's country home in Norfolk.

The Montessori method was developed to focus on individual children and not mark their progress through grades or tests. Interaction between children in the classroom is encouraged and there is an emphasis on learning through play. It's been said that Montessori nursery schools produce mature, creative and socially-adept children, although the method has been criticised for being too free.

Westacre School is found down a quiet, private road, away from prying eyes so that, for the time being at least, Prince George can experience a normal childhood away from the lenses of the media.

It can only be assumed that he will go on to receive primary and secondary education at the finest independent schools England has to offer. His father, Prince William, attended Ludgrove School and Eton College before gaining his degree - and his future wife - at St Andrew's University.

As yet there are barely a handful of Montessori schools in Northern Ireland. We talk to the parents who have chosen Bright Sparks Montessori Pre School in Bangor for their children's education. For morning sessions it costs £75 per week or £15 per day. There is also a one-off £65 registration fee.

'Poppy has such a great range of vocabulary'

Ian McManus (30) is a primary school teacher. He lives in Bangor with his wife Cathy who works with adults with learning difficulties, and their children Poppy (4), James (2) and Beth (9 months). He says:

Poppy has had a year at the Montessori school and James has been going this year. When it came to finding a place for Poppy we weren't even sure if it was worth sending her to pre-preschool but we then started looking into Montessori.

We appreciate the thought that goes into Montessori education.

They encourage play-based learning and get the kids into that frame of mind before they actually went into nursery school.

These are very formative years when it comes to forming vocabulary.

We think that it's given first Poppy and now James a great start - we didn't want to saturate them academically but we wanted a little more thought in their nursery education. I really believe that the benefits to both the children have been great.

Poppy is nice and confident and has a good range of vocabulary already. I believe Prince George will really benefit from his nursery school and I hope it will make the Montessori method more mainstream"

'It has been so great for Lucie's self-confidence'

Judith Frame (29) is a church music co-ordinator. She lives in Bangor with her husband Andrew, a youth development officer, and their children Lucie (5) and Niamh (2). She says:

Lucie went to a Montessori nursery for her pre-preschool year but we were so pleased with her performance that we kept her there for her nursery year, too.

I trained as a primary school teacher, so I do know about education. My perception of Montessori has always been that it's a lot more educational for the preschool year than other nurseries.

Pre-schools always strike me as more of a daycare atmosphere - yes the children learn through play, but there is no more focus on education than that.

With Montessori, even at the age of three, Lucie was encouraged to count and learn letter sounds. Of course, some nurseries have a focus on education, but with the Montessori method it's been carefully thought out.

We felt that Montessori would lend itself to Lucie's personality - from day one she's loved learning and is obsessed with books. We knew that her little brain was that way inclined so she would easily cope with the method.

We've really noticed the benefits of Lucie attending a Montessori nursery, not least in her self-confidence.

One thing that was very important to us was the staff to pupil ratio and at Bright Sparks it was one teacher to every four children.

We could see that Lucie's interests were really developed for her. She loves music so they were happy to let her explore that.

Schools have much bigger classes now, so I thought if Lucie could get more attention for those two years that would be the best start we could give her."

'We wanted our son to develop language skills'

Gary Graham (34) is a retail supervisor. He lives in Bangor with his wife Laura, who also works in retail and their children Sophie (6), Charlie (4) and Macie-Lou (2). He says:

Both Sophie and Charlie have been to Montessori nursery school and we plan to send Macie-Lou there, too.

Sophie did her pre-preschool and pre-school year there. We chose that nursery because they have a high ratio of staff members to children. Sophie has cerebral palsy - it's a neurological condition that effects her movement and co-ordination - so she needs a little more attention. We knew she would get that at a Montessori nursery but that she would still be in an environment that enabled her to interact with other children.

Sophie is quite intelligent, so we also felt that the way the Montessori method brings kids through with their motor skills and language skills would benefit her, too.

Now Sophie attends primary school and is one of the top pupils in her class so we absolutely got what we wanted from sending her to a Montessori school. That was a big factor in sending Charlie there, too - his situation was slightly different as he was born with a hearing impediment and because of that his speech was delayed. He had surgery to put vents in his ears just over a year ago so his hearing has improved now.

We put Charlie into the Montessori school because we wanted him to develop his language skills. When he finished he was putting together sentences and chatting away, which was a great thing to see.

We had been worried that his social skills would suffer as he couldn't interact with other kids until his hearing improved. Montessori encourages lots of interaction with both the kids and the teachers. He's come away from Bright Sparks with lots of little friends.

We saw real benefits from the Montessori method and we are not surprised William and Kate chose it for their son."

'The kids don't realise they're learning too'

Kim Gardner (35) is a hairdresser. She lives in Bangor with her children Corey (6) and Everly (eight months). She says:

Corey attended Bright Sparks the first year it was opened in 2011. He did his pre-preschool year and his pre-school year - I was so pleased with how he did in his pre-preschool year that I didn't apply anywhere else. I had read a lot about Montessori education and how it was completely child-led and all about the kids. I wanted a place for my children where learning was at their pace instead of having to meet certain targets by a certain age.

When it came to sending Corey to nursery I simply Googled Montessori and discovered that Bright Sparks was opening in Bangor.

Corey is confident, bright and is full of empathy and I think all of those things were encouraged through Montessori. As far as the kids know they're just playing and having fun, they don't realise they're learning things at the same time.

Had there been a Montessori primary school in Bangor, I would have been happy to pay for Corey to go there.

I think Northern Ireland doesn't know much about Montessori yet - the education here is regarded as way ahead of England, so they might not have the need for an alternative.

I've recommended Montessori to everyone and Everly's name is already down with them.

I believe the Royals' choice of school will give the Montessori method a huge profile and may lead to more schools opening in Northern Ireland."

From the slums of Rome to a modern marvel

The Montessori teaching method was developed by Italy's first female professor in the slums of Rome in the early 1900s. Dr Maria Montessori developed a child-centred approach in her work with special needs children.

Essentially the Montessori method encourages a child's natural instinct to learn through play. Rather than being set goals, the child is free to develop at its own speed.

In that respect the child is master of its own development, although staff may direct it towards specific activities. However, there is no compulsion to take part in them.

To use the name, a nursery must have a Montessori-trained member of staff.

The principles used in Montessori nurseries are often used as best practice models in traditional nurseries.

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