(1921 - 2014)

Willemien de Vries was born in The Hague in the Netherlands, where as a small child she attended a Montessori Children’s House. In September 1939 she enrolled in the two-year Montessori training course held at Laren. At the beginning of the course the lectures were given by Dr Montessori, in French, and by Mario Montessori, in English. This was an awe-inspiring experience.

Communication, face to face, with one of the greatest minds in the world was a powerful guide to continue to live on the highest level possible without compromise (Duyker-de Vries 1987:15).

The same Montessori training course was attended by Renee Swart, who later also migrated to Australia and, as Renee Taylor, would found the Beehive Montessori School in Perth. Before the course had finished on 5 May 1940, the Germans attacked Holland and soon overran the country. In 1941 Willemien graduated with her Montessori diploma and began a year’s voluntary work in a Montessori school to complete the practical requirements. In 1942 she opened her own small Montessori class in her home, but with constant bombing and no fuel the class could not continue.

After the war ended, Willemien worked in a Montessori school for children of jailed Nazi collaborators. She also spent a year working in England before returning to Holland, and setting up another Montessori class with the help of her future husband, Frank Duyker. In 1951 they married and, because of the housing shortage in Holland, in 1952, the year Maria Montessori died in the Netherlands aged 81, the Duykers emigrated to Australia. After a short time in an immigration camp, the Duykers travelled to Western Australia where they established a successful pottery at Scarborough. In 1959 the Duykers adopted a child, Terry, and immediately began thinking about their son’s education.

When Terry turned three in 1962, his mother opened a small class of eight children in their home. When the Duykers asked the Director-General of Education for permission to open the class, he said: ‘I can’t see why not, if your place is not a shambles’.

As this class outgrew the maximum number of 15 allowed in a home school, the Duykers spent their weekends building their first real classroom in a bushland setting overlooking Lake Goollelal, at that time an undeveloped area north of Perth, later called Wanneroo.

Before the school was opened, a headline in the West Australian newspaper in March 1962 parroted a common misconception about Montessori schools when it declared: ‘“Do-As-You- Like” School Here Soon’. The article that followed, however, provided more reliable information about the proposed school.

“A school where freedom is the main rule and where teachers do not interfere much will be built soon in South Wanneroo. It will be conducted on the Montessori method of child education ...

Any play-material could be chosen, but it had to be put away properly before the child moved on to something else.

A whole roomful of under-sixes, each busily doing what each liked best, could be a surprisingly harmonious society”.

In the early 1960s there was no government funding for independent schools, so when in 1965 the first group of children turned six, the Duykers took out a personal loan and built a second classroom to start a primary school. At that time, as well as establishing the school and teaching, Mrs Duyker drove one of the buses that brought the children to school every day. It was at this point that the Duykers also realised their biggest problem was going to be finding trained staff. So, just like Martha Simpson half a century earlier, Willemien Duyker-de Vries started her own Montessori training course, which was officially accredited in 1986 by the West Australian government as a Certificate in Montessori Education.

A story still told at The Montessori School is of a young boy at the primary school in the 1960s who was excited about making number rolls. He wrote the numbers to 20 000 on the first roll he created. When he took this roll home, his father asked, ‘And what will you do next?’ The eager son replied, ‘I’m going to do another roll!’ When that was accomplished, he created a roll of numbers to merely one hundred, but this time in Roman numerals. He then spent the rest of the term studying mathematics and the term after that studying geography. This student eventually became a professor of physics at Cambridge University.

Around the same time, a nine-year-old student asked, ‘What comes after a billion?’ When told ‘a trillion’, the student wanted to know what came next. With the teacher and fellow students, he consulted the encyclopaedia and together they found the names of all the hierarchies of numbers to 63 zeros. Then the students asked, ‘Can you write that?’ Together the students wrote the number, beginning with the units 1 to 9, then the tens from 10 to 90, and the hundreds from 100 to 900. The name of each group was written alongside the numbers on the sheet of paper. As new groups were added – thousands, ten thousands, hundred thousands, billions – sheet after sheet of paper was glued on, until the paper was metres wide.

Mrs Duyker’s groundbreaking school continued to receive publicity through the 1960s. In 1966 the West Australian reported that Mr Desmond Wood, the headmaster of a Tasmanian government school for emotionally disturbed children, St Michael’s, was visiting The Montessori School in Wanneroo. Parents of children at St Michael’s had seen the West Australian image by Bill Hatto’s television program about Mrs Duyker’s school and paid the headmaster’s airfare to Perth so he could investigate further. The newspaper reported that Mr Wood ‘had visited schools in England, France, Victoria and Tasmania and had not found in any of them more constructive learning equipment than in Mrs Duyker’s. He also noted that ‘the children listened intently, and questioned and checked what they were told’. Mr Woods also chastised West Australian readers: ‘Tasmanians would appreciate Mrs Duyker. They would not let her struggle on, running the Montessori school out of her own pocket’.

In the nearly 50 years since Mr Woods made this bold claim, however, no Montessori schools, public or private, have taken hold in Tasmania. By the early 1970s through the newly established Schools Commission, community groups in Australia could apply for government funding if they wished to open their own preschools and schools. After 12 successful years as a privately owned school, the Australian Montessori Society and a school council were formed to enable The Montessori School to access government grants. As a result, the school continued to expand. As the school was entering its second decade in 1972, a secondary section was added, using the name ‘Erdkinder’, or Earth children, Dr Montessori’s name for young people in a Montessori adolescent community. Also in 1972, a feature article about The Montessori School appeared in the University of Western Australia student union newspaper. Its headline, ‘Children’s Liberation?’, reveals that what the student journalists had experienced on their visit to the school resonated with the liberation movements that inspired their generation. It is not surprising that when this generation became parents themselves, Montessori schools proliferated across Australia.

While government funding enabled The Montessori School at Wanneroo to expand, finding council members who shared her vision and winning the support of the authorities became a new challenge for Mrs Duyker, as it would for other Montessori educators in Australia as the 1970s progressed. During the 1970s, several secondary students, six boys and four girls, took part in a bike hike that took several days. First they bought old bicycles and spent several weeks making them roadworthy. During the hike, at each camp along the way, the students, accompanied by their teacher, rang the school to report their location. Their progress was recorded on a map on the school wall. When they left the last camp the supervisor of the camp also rang the school, giving the teachers a shock by asking: ‘Are these children who stayed the night here from your school?’ The teachers were relieved when the camp supervisor said: ‘I want to congratulate you on your students. Never before have we had any young people like this.’ In 1983 The Montessori School celebrated its twenty-first birthday. The small cul-de- sac beside the school was renamed Montessori Place. In the decades since, the school has continued to thrive and expand. In 1992, the school became the first Montessori school in the world to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma course for senior secondary students.