The limits of associative management in a Montessori school


I continue my reflections on Montessori schools and the limits of associative management.

This is an important subject because many schools open every year, and this subject of the legal form is often problematic for the creators of the school.

A school is an economic entity

The first subject, which has constantly challenged me for years: a school is an economic entity, which distributes salaries each month to its employees, and sometimes manages substantial budgets of several hundred thousand euros per year.

So yes, of course, the director (there is still an overwhelming majority of women in this role) is present every day, and ensures the daily functioning.

But what about the management structure when it is an association?

Do not make the director take responsibility for everything

As we have seen, legally, the director cannot totally be in charge, he/she can only act by delegation.

When I was president of the Maria Montessori Les Aiglons middle school (we were created in the form of an association before switching to a cooperative company), I had thus formalized a delegation of signature to be able to incur expenses up to 1000€ for the director, which allowed her to operate for most of the daily expenses without having to refer to me each time, while keeping an eye for all the important expenses. 

But we must keep in mind, on the one hand, that it is a delegation, so you are still responsible, and on the other hand, that this delegation cannot be total.

On the other hand, I know a number of schools where the treasurer spends every day signing cheques, or comes once a week and waits for no expenses except in emergencies (which can be reimbursed on an expense account for example). It must be admitted that this is not the greatest flexibility, and from my point of view, it is only a reflection of the fact that the associative form is not the best in this case.

It goes for the daily management. 

General meetings of shareholders

At the annual general meeting, there is also a strange number: it is obviously the director who presents the report on the past year’s activities, which is generally well listened to … but what about the “moral report” presented by the president? What is its role?

We can try to build something on the themes of relationships with parents, the life of the association as such, as if we could really separate it from the school (not at all if it is an unopened “association”), but frankly it is a little artificial.

And I am not talking about these meetings of the board of directors or the bureau of the association, where it is of course the director, and that is normal, who although simply invited without voting rights, proposes and encourages the various decisions.

This is another strange way of running the school.

What about the educational team in all this?

A final issue is the link with the staff, the educational team in the first place but also the rest of the staff that is often forgotten: cooking, cleaning, etc. They are not at all involved in this associative governance, except at the annual general meeting. Which is a little limited please have some frustrations.

You get it, after all these years, I am not a big fan of this associative governance for Montessori schools, even if it may correspond to a local context. 

That being said, in relation to the various limitations I have identified, original solutions exist: I would like to talk to you in a future post about the collective intelligence process deployed at the Montessori school in Lyon over the past few years.

The role of parents in a Montessori school


I am taking a break from the story of my years at the Montessori school in Lyon, to try to share with you some of my thoughts on associative governance for schools, and the impact on the role of parents.

In the fifteen years since I have been working in the Montessori community in France, and since I have had the opportunity to interact with many educators and school principals, I have seen an evolution in school governance.

Montessori schools in associative management

Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of schools were set up in the form of associations: simplicity of creation, no need for special financial support, and honestly we don’t need to be very large, a small group of people is enough.

Finally, the associative form also corresponded well to the “alternative” aspect of these schools, which did not wish to embody a “commercial” or “institutional” aspect. There were indeed a few schools set up as commercial companies, but this was ultra-minority, as was the total number of schools: at the time, in 2005-2006, less than fifty schools throughout France.

What role for parents in an associative Montessori school?

So obviously the “problem” in the governance of associative schools is of course the parents. This is very paradoxical when we consider that Montessori schools are very keen to welcome families, even to co-educate children with them, and therefore to leave their doors open to parents.

But what are we talking about? What role should parents play? Let them organize parties and other extracurricular activities? On that, no problem of course, everyone is happy. Even more so when organized activities can bring a little (or even a lot) of money to the school.

Risks of parental management

But when we start talking about school management, that is, the “nuclear core” to use an industrial metaphor, then that is something else. Because indeed the risk is very high that they will find themselves judge and party. This is not said in this way, of course (we are talking about education, so it is not very appropriate), but in a school, parents are the beneficiaries of the service provided: in other words, they are the clients. 

And where did we see that it is the customers who decide on the production of the service? The mix of genres is never far away, not to mention the zeal of certain individuals who are always well-intentioned, who imagine they know better than teachers what is good for their child, and secondarily for those of others.

Come on, come on! Besides, it’s not really a profession, since you can go to school at home! (I would like to point out that all this is ironic, in case some people didn’t get it).

And so in associative governance, since the law says employees (including the director) cannot be judge and party, they, and therefore members of the Board of the association, and well it is necessary to find other people: parents are the most “obvious” people in this case, since they attend school and will therefore in theory be sensitive to its future.

Parents closing schools!

Unfortunately, I have seen too many schools close, because of malicious or well-meaning parents who have come into conflict with the principal or even the rest of the team, or playing one part of the team against the other… It usually ends very badly, and the principal does not have the hand to fix the situation. What a waste when you think of all the energy put into keeping a school going!

Since I am not the only one to have made this observation, many schools legally “bias” their governance, and operate “associations” that have no association other than the name, because they are totally locked: either they place trusted outsiders, who will have no interest in the school (but it is a bit like a lottery and not necessarily sustainable), or even relatives.

Some associations are thus run by husbands, brothers or sisters, parents or children.

Keep the spirit of the association alive

For my part, I think it is a way of bypassing the spirit of association to make it an entity in which we do not associate. Either we play the association game, possibly by putting in safeguards but being well aware that there is no such thing as zero risk, or we change the structure. Because other legal forms exist when you have other projects.

Running a Montessori School Parents’ Association


So here I am president! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

Well, you have to put it in perspective right away, in France we like titles, but as I will discover later, I am president of the Montessori school of Lyon’s Montessori parents’ association, you know the one that organizes parties and others. An association with a budget of 4000€ per year, in good years.

Two associations for one school

I am not talking about the school management association, the “really serious” association, the one that manages the salaries of educators, takes all the important decisions, and where we only come in by cooptation, not following a crisis meeting because there is no other candidate.

Far be it from me to make polemics or express any frustration, especially fifteen years later, but this is an opportunity to reflect a little on the governance of Montessori schools, which is one of the topics of this blog. I’m back to the serious business of nothing.

Beyond the first few months, I quickly feel the strange side of the situation: we claim to be a school that is very open to parents (and this is absolutely true for everything regarding relations with families in the educational context, with mistresses, parents are really welcome in the school), but on the other hand the “heart” of the school appears comparatively “locked” and quite mysterious it must be said.

Why two associations in this school? A “parents” association in which the headmistress comes to the meetings to make the link, and another association for the management of the school? I am told that this is historical.

A complicated story with parents

And indeed, I am learning about history: the school was created more than twenty years ago in the form of a commercial company, but after fifteen years it went bankrupt, with a deep crisis and the separation of the two former partners directors, and the departure of many families, a sharing of the school between two camps… In short, it was necessary to rebuild a lot of things, to leave not in another society but by bringing together a group of people who had stuck together during this difficult period, and therefore in the associative format. 

But there is no longer any question of reproducing the previous situation, so we have locked in: recruitment into the management association is exclusively by cooptation. The parent association that existed (next to the management company) continues, and so the school finds itself with two associations, and a somewhat strange governance.

Cooperation, a key concept in a Montessori school

But there is a real spirit of cooperation: I was able to take things in hand, find good will and build a real project team (no one wanted to be president, but many people were willing to contribute), and things are moving forward. And the following year, I was asked to join the management association in order to better coordinate the activities of the two associations (the management association can be responsible for reserving a room, for example, if it is necessary to give a guarantee that the meagre budget of the parents’ association does not allow). 

So here I am, two years after my arrival at school, a real “politician” at Montessori: president of the parents’ association and vice-president of the management association (a position that allows me to participate in meetings and decisions, but without too much extra work). How to bypass a complicated system and ensure a better circulation of information through the accumulation of mandates.

Being parent of a student in a Montessori school


So here I am as a new parent in this Montessori school.

Our eldest daughter had returned in January (there was no spot for the start of the September school year, but a spot had become available afterwards), and as early as February, curious and positive after the first few weeks, I see an invitation for an “extraordinary general meeting” of the parents’ association. Let’s go !

A surprising parents’ meeting

And now… how can I say this? The meeting is clearly not what I expected…. It must be said that there was no precise agenda except for “organization of activities for the end of the year”, a rather vague title. At least in my memory, because it goes back a few years already! I say this in case some of my readers have attended the same scene and have a very different view of it, I will be happy to discuss it with them.

The current president welcomes us, and begins to explain that this is her second year as president, that the first year has been great, that so many projects have been proposed for this year but she is no longer doing well, that she has too much to do, that she is not getting enough help, that everyone is always willing to organize events but that after that when we get down to business there is no one left. And that she can’t take it anymore and quit! In the middle of the school year (it is February and it is particularly important to prepare for the end of year celebration).

The audience was obviously taken aback, no one was aware of it, except that some felt that something was wrong. But they had no idea about this decision. Several people try to get her to reconsider her decision, but nothing works. We have to face the facts, we will have to elect a new president. 

And of course, no one volunteers: many voices are raised to say that of course they are willing to help, to participate to ensure that the planned projects can take place, but not from there to become president. e. Problem…

Engaging in an associative school

I already had quite a few years of associative commitment behind me, mainly in the professional world: at the time of this meeting I was a director of the ARADEL association, the Rhône-Alpes Association of Local Economic Developers, the people who work, for the most part within local authorities, to welcome and support companies; and I had been a director in a local Crédit Mutuel bank, you know the bank “which belongs to its member-clients”. Two very different experiences, but which in any case made me no more afraid of becoming president than that. 

Even if it was a little bold, just a month after arriving in school. 

These are sometimes (often?) the accidents of the path of associative governance.

In any case, after a former president (who was going to leave school the following year and therefore did not want to return to this position) assured me of his support and guidance, I am the only candidate, and valiantly elected president of the parents’ association. The honour is safe, things can continue. For my part, I am not finished seeing any more green and ripe steps regarding the functioning of associations. We will certainly talk about it again, it is one of my main concerns….

My first Montessori School


For this first post, I would like to tell you about the beginnings of my journey in Montessori education. Because as I realized later, it is a path, and this pedagogy also makes you evolve as a parent, and then as a human being. However, this path is not original, it was like so many others that of a parent of a student in a Montessori school.

From Public School to Montessori

It took me many years and many detours to get to my current professional situation. 

When I left high school and then higher education, I was (gently) mocking some of my friends who were planning to stay in education. You know, the cliché of the teacher who never left school. And here I am back now!

Another certainty that shattered: to all those who wanted to hear it, I proclaimed that I was a child of the public school, and that never, ever would my children go to private school! I must say that I spent a very happy youth at the Collège Valéri (not Valéry, he was the former owner of the place before it became a collège) then at the lycée du Parc Impérial in Nice, which was nevertheless a “great lycée of 3000 students … it must be said that at the end of the year, when some teachers were absent, we could go out and go to the beach before returning … what definitely leaves good memories. And as I have always been a rather good student, this has not prevented me from finding my way well balanced between going out and working regularly.

In short, if during my studies I regularly gave courses in history, geography, economics or even French or philosophy, I never really thought of myself as a teacher !

And by the way, this is still the case.

Looking for alternative educational proposals

It was by the very classic, very usual way for the moment, that I returned to school: that of the parent.

When my eldest daughter reached the age of two, with her mother we were very involved as parents in alternative proposals: home birth, long-term breastfeeding, intensive carrying, co-sleep, etc.

We “naturally” tried to find out more about alternative educational proposals: Steiner, Montessori, Freinet, Decroly … I can assure you that at the time (that’s it again, I’m doing my old crumbling old man) Montessori was considered a cult! I had also found old articles on the Solar Temple (who remembers?), some of which mentioned Montessori schools (some parents had to attend them, without it coming from the school in question).

In short, nothing to do with the current situation where Montessori pedagogy is considered by some to be too strict!

The Montessori school in Lyon, a dream school

And there, a little “miracle” happened, one day at the bakery downstairs: a small leaflet announcing the open doors of the Montessori school in Lyon, which Françoise Neri, the headmistress of the school that lived nearby, had just left.

When we visited the school that day, we thought: impossible, it’s a dream school! Besides, it doesn’t look that much like a school! And the team seems so friendly, and especially respectful of children! There were also parents, who described their experience in this school better than anyone else, and made them furiously envious. In short, when we came out we said to ourselves: no more need to search, it will be here and nowhere else!

Or how all of a sudden all my previous certainties about “public”, free school etc., have been shattered. First lesson, never say never….