Kairos School in Portugal Brings Together Educational Freedom and Catholic Identity

Set in idyllic surroundings, this Cambridge school combines Montessori pedagogy with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, attracting families from as far away as the United States.

This innovative school is gaining the attention of parents and educators alike.
This innovative school is gaining the attention of parents and educators alike. (photo: Ira Lippke / Courtesy of Kairos school)

Schools based on the Montessori teaching method have proliferated in recent years, but are increasingly associated with New-Age movements that are less inclined to provide children with a structured education. 

In Europe, very few have remained faithful to the intrinsically Catholic identity and spirituality associated with this pedagogy, which is based on the child’s creative autonomy. The Kairos Montessori school in Cascais, Portugal, located outside the capital of Lisbon, is now one of the welcome exceptions. 

Originally founded in 2017 to offer a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program for children, the school has grown ambitiously and dynamically. Today, it is an international Cambridge school, for ages 3-18, and one of the most prestigious in the region, attracting families from all over the world, including the U.S.


A Unique Initiative in Portugal 

While alternative educational initiatives are many in the United State, they are often still in their infancy on the other side of the Atlantic, but are gradually developing, not least to meet the growing demand from expatriate communities in Portugal. Alongside forest schools, an outdoor-education delivery model, Montessori establishments are beginning to spread, but without promoting the Catholic anthropological vision, based on individual responsibility and respect for the laws of human nature of their initiator, the Italian educator Maria Montessori, who was Catholic. 

As with many success stories, the project was initially born of fortuitous conditions and unmet needs. In 2017, resettled in her native Portugal, in Cascais, after 16 years in London, Candida Correa de Sa Wigan, architect and now mother of five, was looking for an interactive catechism course for her children. Having discovered in London the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a religious-formation program for children 3 to 12 years old inspired by Montessori educational methods — she first tried, in vain, to find a local equivalent. With the consent of her parish priest, she brought a catechist specifically trained in Good Shepherd teaching from Germany and arranged to hold a course in winter 2017 — and it met with an unexpected response.

“The course has been extraordinary, completely life-changing,” Correa de Sa Wigan told the Register. She recalls that her husband, Henry Wigan, who works in finance, attended the course and was so edified by the dynamics at work that he thought the project should expand. “Our catechist gave us this gem, and we didn't want to let it go, so we decided to open a permanent school,” she said. 

It all began with a class of 12 pupils. In September of the same year, the simple catechism class was extended to a full British Montessori school program, after obtaining permission from the Ministry of Education, for children age 3 to 6. The dynamism of this project continued the following year, so much so that to open up to older age groups, the school had to move to its current structure, on the edge of the famous Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, close to the ocean. 

In this verdant setting, surrounded by pine trees, horses and teachers with a vibrant faith, some 100 students, who range in age from 3 to 15, prepare for adult life by maturing their personal vocation and life mission.

 

Kairos school Portugal 2
Whether indoors or outdoors, learning is hands-on.(Photo: Ira Lippke/courtesy of Kairos school)

 


Freedom and Discipline 

Kairos in the New Testament means “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” and its namesake school is at once a place of academic excellence and of solid spiritual and sports training, with the active participation of parents throughout the educational process, much of which takes place outdoors. The school also promotes “technological poverty,” banning the use of all electronic devices on school premises, to give pupils “freedom from the distractions of the modern world.”

 “We follow the British National Curriculum and therefore offer a highly structured framework, but each child moves at their own pace, focusing at certain times on subjects for which they have a natural inclination, enabling them to gain self-confidence without losing other skills,” continued Correa de Sa Wigan, stressing that this original and personal way of teaching requires all the more on the part of the teacher, who becomes “almost invisible.” “It's a constant balancing act between freedom and discipline, which go hand in hand, and often requires saintly patience and a great deal of humility,” she continued. “Unlike a conventional classroom, where all the pupils look to the teacher, the latter must constantly follow and monitor, rather like a cook, several pots at the same time.”

Tara Kinloch, the London-born director of the school’s Children’s House for students age 3 to 6, saw this vocation blossom at the same time as her conversion to Catholicism, around 2011. Her specific mission as a catechist and Montessori guide came to her during a discernment retreat in Medjugorje in 2013.

After training in Montessori pedagogy, in the Good Shepherd Catechesis and several years’ experience in this field in the U.K., Kinloch and her family decided to join the Kairos team in Portugal almost five years ago. 

“My main aim in guiding a child or teenager is for them to be able to discern, to be resilient, to know where their vocation lies and to have a fundamental understanding of how life works, with a solid academic background, too,” she told the Register. “That’s my dream, and when I see it come true in all those little ones I assist, it makes my mission all the more meaningful.”


God at Work 

For her, the existence of the Kairos school, when one looks back at the initial project of a small catechism class, is undoubtedly the result of a series of blessings by Providence.

“When you think that the founders — a couple made up of a financier and an architect — initially had no idea, no training to set up such an educational project, but that through their prayers and discernment, the project set itself up, attracting all the right people at the right time, how can one not think that God was at work all along?”

“Through my journey here,” she said, “I have seen how God has worked in each and every one of us to complete and to carry on what we have now.” 

The prestige of a school is also often measured by the willingness of families to relocate to enroll their children, which appears to be the case for Kairos, which has already attracted a few American families. John Montovano’s family is one of them. This New Yorker, married to a Polish woman and father of two, decided to take the plunge and move to Cascais a year ago, excited by the prospect of a unique alliance between the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and the Montessori method applied to a Cambridge school, all in a unique setting.

“It creates such a pleasant and stable environment for our children that flows quite naturally from the atmosphere and values of our home, it creates a beautiful symmetry, and it’s all made possible by this rare blend of educational elements,” Montovano told the Register, adding that he particularly appreciates the fact that Kairos religious education makes faith so accessible to children, adapting to their development, and making them part of the learning process by fostering interiority, and thus a personal relationship with Christ, from the first years of their lives. He also pointed out that the quality of teaching is enhanced by regular contact with priests, especially their young chaplain, Father Mendo Ataíde. 

“I was very impressed by the quality of the teaching staff, who make my children eager to go to school,” he concluded. “All this combined makes the amazing idea of having everything you want in one place a reality.”

As it prepares to open its doors to 15- to 18-year-olds next year, the school and its original model could soon be exported to the rest of Europe, with teachers and catechists already approaching its founders to launch similar initiatives. This could prove to be an effective way of reconciling freedom of education with its original Catholic essence on the Old Continent.

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