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Wed, June 30, 2010
The Straits Times

It's a 'fun' partnership with the kids

By Marissa Lee

The education sector - which does not include schools controlled or funded by the Government - generated $4.9 billion in operating receipts in 2008.

In the final part of a six-part fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Ian Poh and Marissa Lee look at two leading private education organisations.

IT WENT against the usual learning process, but one of the most valuable lessons Mrs Ng Gim Choo ever received came from her little daughter 25 years ago.

Mrs Ng's first step on this particular learning curve came after she moved to London when her husband was posted to the British capital.

They sent their four-year-old daughter E-Ching to Pembridge Hall, a pre-school near Kensington Gardens, and were stunned at the result.

"She enjoyed going to school every day," recalled Mrs Ng, 58. "On weekends she would put on her school uniform and I would tell her that she couldn't go to school, and she would be so disappointed."

Mrs Ng had never attended kindergarten and her own memories of life in a Chinese education system was that it was "a pressure cooker, never fun".

Looking at her daughter's smiling face sparked her curiosity and she became a parent volunteer at Pembridge Hall to see just what was getting E-Ching so excited.

Mrs Ng discovered a whole new educational philosophy, one that saw children's play as a central mode of learning.

Inspired by the British play-based curriculum, Mrs Ng set out to transplant that same fun and nurturing learning environment to pre-schools here when she returned to Singapore.

"At that time, the early years system in Singapore was still very much instructional, very much teacher-directed rather than student-responsive," said Mrs Ng, who has three children aged 25 to 32.

In 1995, she walked from the kitchen to the boardroom when she opened the first EtonHouse school in Broadrick Road with $500,000 in seed capital from her husband and brother.

The curriculum blends the International Baccalaureate philosophy of inquiry-based learning with the Reggio Emilia approach.

This posits that children have 100 languages with which to communicate their ideas, including drawing, painting, composing, singing and dancing.

Today, the EtonHouse International Education Group operates 26 international schools and pre-schools in Singapore, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia educating 3,000 pupils.

Annual revenue is about $40 million a year.

Singaporeans comprise about 20 per cent to 35 per cent of the pupil mix here.

Fees range between $1,500 and $1,600 a month and a child may have to wait for as long as two years for a place.

One of the schools' key attractions - and reason for its high fees - is the high teacher-pupil ratio, said Mrs Ng.

A pre-nursery class for 18-month-olds has four teachers to a class of 16.

This sort of "family setting", as Mrs Ng puts it, helps cultivate a personal relationship between teacher and child and allows teachers to tailor lessons to the learning styles of each child.

"We respect children," said Mrs Ng. "We look into their interests, and the learning is generated based on each child's interests."

But parents are not excluded from the relationship either.

"We always say education is a successful partnership among the parents, the teachers and the children."

EtonHouse schools maintain a strong line of communication with parents through fortnightly newsletters and portfolios for each student.

On top of the bi-annual parent-teacher meetings, the schools also hold student-led conferences once a year.

"Once a year, we turn around and let the children be the teachers, to show their parents how they learn," said Mrs Ng.

"It's very interesting because you let students take ownership of their learning, and it's also a confidence-booster."

These initiatives require a lot of preparation by teachers, who have to brief the parents beforehand, tell them to be positive and remind them not to put down their children if they are unable to grasp something that might seem simple.

EtonHouse employs 800 staff globally - with 320 here - of which 70 per cent are teachers.

"It's always a challenge to get good teachers," said Mrs Ng, who recruited a principal and a few teachers from Britain when she started.

All prospective teachers have to go through a stringent selection process. A degree or diploma in early child education is one requirement.

EtonHouse also has its own teaching academy, the EtonHouse Education Centre (EEC), which focuses on pre-school teacher training, research and professional development.

Four pedagogists, specialists who study how children learn, are based there. They travel the globe to participate in conferences, and then share these research-based best practices with teachers here.

About 10 years ago, EtonHouse began providing primary education at the Broadrick Road main campus, by popular demand from satisfied parents whose children had graduated from the pre-school.

Mrs Ng is now also looking to expand to Britain, America and Australia and even Dubai in the longer term.

"At EtonHouse, we have children from 54 nationalities. We have children of Asian expatriates, we also have children of Western expatriates," she said.

"We want to go to the West because a lot of our children, after studying at EtonHouse, they went back to America, they went back to Australia, to the UK, and they still missed the EtonHouse experience."


"Once a year, we turn around and let the children be the teachers, to show their parents how they learn... It's very interesting because you let students take ownership of their learning, and it's also a confidence-booster."
Mrs Ng Gim Choo, managing director of EtonHouse International. The schools hold pupil-led conferences once a year, on top of bi-annual parent-teacher meetings.

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