Module 8: EYFS and Educational Philosophies and Exemptions to the EYFS

Montessori and the EYFS

The introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) has created an opportunity for a new relationship between the Montessori movement in the UK and those academics, policymakers and local authority professionals involved in the care and education of young children. There is a strong concordance between the themes and principles that underpin the EYFS and those that guide Montessori practice.


Drawing on the Birth to Three Matters Framework, the EYFS puts a new emphasis on children as active learners throughout the foundation stage. This new emphasis has, in turn, increased the attention given to the environments from which children learn. Dr Montessori was one of the earliest pioneers of educational practices based on these ideas. Today, Montessori communities have a unique contribution to make to the delivery of the EYFS because of the very different way in which they function to support active learning.

At the same time, the EYFS poses a difficulty, in the form of the statutory targets, to those seeking to comprehensively support active learning. Over many years children in Montessori environments have comfortably arrived at the indicators of development described through the targets. Supporting children to this level of development has come about by planning activities that follow each child’s deepest interests at any particular time. The emphasis on target-based planning within the EYFS could lead some practitioners to dictate a learning timetable to the children at the expense of following the deep interests of an active learner.

Montessori Education (UK) has written a document mapping Montessori against the guidelines given in the EYFS. The purpose of this document is to highlight how the EYFS can be delivered very effectively through Montessori environments, highlighting those areas where Montessori practice has a particular contribution to offer. Each of the Themes and Principles is comprehensively addressed, including the six areas of Learning and Development.

Montessori and the EYFS

A central idea of Montessori education is that children have within them the power they need to develop themselves. Following from this is the understanding that it is through the child’s interaction with his environment that this self-construction takes place. It is the child that needs to be active in his dynamic experience with the world around him. The task we set ourselves as Montessori educators is to provide children with an environment carefully prepared to meet their particular developmental needs and, through careful observation, to connect them with that environment, so that they can build themselves through their own activity.

The parallels between the Montessori approach and some of the main themes of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are clear. The EYFS theme of ‘A Unique Child’ is based on the principle that ‘Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’.  Similarly, the EYFS makes the provision of ‘Enabling Environments’ one of four priorities. The emphasis placed on ‘active learning’ and ‘learning through experience’ within the theme of ‘Learning and Development’ is again very much in line with Montessori practice.

There are many sections of the EYFS that emphasise the importance of the child’s own decision making, both in what they do and how they do it. Other parts of the EYFS emphasise that children are innately ‘primed’ to learn from the human and physical environments around them. This is a radical departure from traditional educational practice, which in general follows a curriculum decided by the adult, that determines what the children should do and learn. In the Montessori approach decision-making for the child’s day-to-day activities shifts away from the adult, to the child.

Montessori environments take these principles to their natural conclusion. The child enters an environment, which both in its contents and functioning is designed to meet the particular physical, mental and spiritual needs of children aged between 2 ½ to 6 years. Within this space, there are very few limits to the child’s freedom and decision-making.  A child is shown a variety of activities, is free to choose what to do, and for how long. Through detailed observations of his choice and use of activities, further individual lessons are offered, giving him an increasing range of materials to explore. Children are free to use an activity until they decide to put it away. They are free to choose when to be active, when to rest and watch, when to look at a book, to go outside, to have a drink or prepare some fruit.  When a child is choosing freely within an environment carefully prepared to support his independence, it is relatively easy to observe his real interests unfolding – those that are driven by developmental urges – and to support and follow these.

The Montessori Approach

Dr Maria Montessori was one of the most important early years educators of the 20th century and has influenced the education of young children all over the world, writes Elizabeth Walker.

The principles of Montessori education are as relevant today and the methods continue to be very popular with both parents and early years practitioners. The parallels between the Montessori approach and some of the main themes of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are clear and the principles identified continue to underpin our work in early years provisions and schools over 100 years later.


Dr Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome medical school in 1896 and became involved in education through her work treating children with special needs and mental disabilities. She designed specialist equipment to enable children to learn through movement and developed her approach by observing children and tailoring her equipment and resources to meet their specific and individual development needs.

When she went on to establish schools for the disadvantaged children of working parents in Rome she approached their education as a scientist, observing children and finding ways to help them to achieve their full potential. It soon became apparent that Montessori had developed a highly effective method of teaching and she began to travel the world, establishing schools, lecturing, and writing articles right up to her death in 1952 at the age of 82.

Principles of Montessori education

Dr Montessori was a true pioneer of a child-centred education and she developed a holistic approach which aims to develop the whole child: physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth are equally important.

The following key principles are fundamental to the Montessori approach.

  • A child’s early years from birth to six are described as the first plane of development and it is the period when they have the greatest capacity to learn.
  • Children are born with an ability and readiness to learn — they are driven to become independent learners through the freedom to choose learning activities in a prepared environment.
  • In early childhood, children learn best through sensory-motor activities, working with materials that develop their cognitive powers through direct experience.
  • Children have “sensitive” periods when they are more susceptible to certain behaviours and can learn specific skills more easily. They should be fully supported and encouraged during these periods.
  • Children learn best in multi-age environments: younger children learn from older children; older children reinforce their learning by teaching concepts they have already mastered.
  • The learning environment should be carefully prepared to fulfil the needs of each child and enable them to become independent, active learners.
  • Teachers should use careful observation to guide children to activities which suit their stage of development and interests.
  • Children should be given uninterrupted blocks of time to become fully absorbed in activities which interest them.
  • Montessori teachers are viewed as enablers and developers of independent learners who provide a caring and nurturing environment based on mutual respect between adults and children.

Montessori and the EYFS

It is clear that there are strong links between the themes that underpin the EYFS and those that guide Montessori practice. The EYFS expresses its four main principles in terms which Montessori educators are very familiar with as follows.

A unique child

Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.

Positive relationships

Children learn to strong and independent from a base of loving and secure relationships with parents and/or a key person.

Enabling environments

The environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children’s development and learning.

Learning and development

Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates, and all areas of learning and development are equally important and interconnected.

Dr Montessori was one of the earliest pioneers of educational practices based on these ideas and the parallels between the themes in the EYFS and the Montessori approach are evident. The EYFS places emphasis on “active learning” and “learning through experience” and this also is very much in line with Montessori practice. Both also see observation of children as central to promoting children’s learning and development.

The teacher’s role

Montessori teachers are not the centre of attention in the classroom presenting information for rote learning. Their role is to work as a guide and facilitator, introducing carefully prepared activities that meet the child’s unique interests, abilities and developmental needs. Montessori teachers lay the foundations for independent learning and their role involves:

  • Making children the centre of learning
  • Encouraging children to learn by providing freedom for them in the prepared environment
  • Observing children so as to prepare the best possible environment, recognising sensitive periods and diverting inappropriate behaviour to meaningful tasks
  • Preparing the learning environment by ensuring that learning materials are provided in an orderly format and the materials provide for appropriate experiences for all the children
  • Respecting each child and modelling ongoing respect for all children and their work
  • Introducing learning materials, demonstrating learning materials, and supporting children’s learning after observing each child.


For the first time, Montessori qualifications have been approved on the national qualifications framework and meet the full and relevant criteria for those wishing to enter the workforce as Early Years Educators. Developed by Montessori Centre International, the new diploma in Montessori Pedagogy — Birth to Seven (Early Years Educator) qualification is offered at Level 3 and Level 4. Other courses are also available including an Introduction to the Montessori Approach as well as degree level qualifications.

Exemptions from EYFS Learning and Development Requirements

Why allow independent schools exemptions when they are apparently doing an excellent job of delivering the EYFS?

Many independent schools follow the EYFS with few problems and can see the benefits of this type of framework for younger children. However, others are keen to offer the type of education that parents are requesting, which is not prescribed by the state. We feel that if independent schools are already delivering good-quality provision that parents want, they should be able to choose whether the EYFS learning and development requirements are right for them. This would be a choice for schools to make and no school would be forced to opt-out of the EYFS learning and development requirements if they don’t wish to do so.

If independent schools are rated so highly, why not exempt them all?

The Government is keen to drive up the quality of early years provision and we are safeguarding quality by only allowing good or better independent schools to opt for exemption. Other independent schools need to demonstrate they can reach this quality and meet all the EYFS learning and development requirements before they will be eligible to take up exemptions.

Why can they only get exemptions for children aged 3-5? Why not all children aged 0-5?

Independent schools have to meet the Independent Schools Standards, which apply to children aged 3 and upwards. Where they have a demonstrable track record in delivering good quality early years provision, then they are free to opt-out of meeting the learning and development requirements of EYFS for these children. However, the ISS does not cover children under the age of 3 – so, if they too were covered by the exemption then children aged 0-2 in those schools would not be covered by any learning and development arrangements.

What about the free entitlement – won’t schools taking exemptions to lose this funding?

The responsibility for securing free early education places rests with local authorities. They are required by law to secure places in providers delivering the EYFS and the statutory guidance says they should make a local decision on whether to fund provision that is exempt from the learning and development requirements of the EYFS.

We make it clear in the guidance that any school taking up exemption from the EYFS learning and development requirements should consult the relevant LA and inform parents if the exemption is likely to have an impact on whether the school is able to offer the free entitlement.

Why only independent schools – what about Academies, Free Schools and private nurseries?

Independent schools are governed by the Independent School Standards (ISS) enabling inspection and information for parents on the quality of learning and development standards even though the EYFS requirements no longer apply. No such regulations exist for private nurseries or Academies and we feel it is important that a framework of learning and development continues to exist in these settings. We also know that most nurseries are happy to deliver the EYFS. Academies are state-funded and, as such, we feel it is right for them to deliver the Government’s Early Years Foundations Stage framework.

Why haven’t you extended exemptions to all settings within the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF), as Tickell recommended?

All schools within the SWSF will still be able to apply for exemptions in the same way as they have previously. SWSF that are registered as independent schools and have attained ‘good’ or better school inspection judgements against ‘overall effectiveness of the EYFS’ are able to opt for a full exemption like other independent schools. SWSF schools and kindergarten will no longer have to reapply after two years – their exemption will remain as long as they continue to meet the circumstances of their direction for exemption.

Does having no applications process for independent school’s risk ‘rogue’ schools deciding to take up exemptions?

All schools which plan to take up exemptions under the proposed new route are still required to notify the Department of their intention. We will then notify inspectorates of this. Any schools which do not meet the quality threshold within the SoS direction will not be legally eligible for exemption and will be notified as such. We also expect inspectorates and associations to notify us of any concerns they have around exempted schools if they do not feel they are meeting the conditions set out in the direction and we would subsequently take action if we have concerns.

With no renewals process, how can you be sure that providers still qualify for exemptions years down the line?

If eligibility criteria no longer apply, schools’ exemptions will immediately expire. Inspections and visits from associations (for example, the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship), will ensure that the Department and Inspectorates know which providers who are no longer eligible. We feel that the risks of this approach are far outweighed by the benefits of providers no longer needing to go through the process of gaining exemptions every two years.