Some parents in Singapore would have been through this rite of passage: Registering a spot for their child – from as young as two months old – at a sought-after preschool to guarantee a chance for an official registration when the child comes of age.
In 2014, EtonHouse, appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development as the anchor operator of E-Bridge Preschool, a chain of affordable preschools that offer childcare services and an inquiry-based curriculum, saw hordes of parents jostling for a spot at E-Bridge’s Punggol branch. Keen to enrol their children at the centre, which offers subsidised rates for Singapore families in the heartlands, they started queueing one day before registration began. It’s a powerful testament to the reputation that EtonHouse has built over the past 20 years for the quality of education that it provides, which emphasises the importance of learning through play and inquiry.
Ironically, the early years of setting up EtonHouse were fraught with challenges, as parents were more familiar with the rote-learning techniques taught at most Singapore schools in the ’90s, and did not believe in a play-based curriculum back when founder Ng Gim Choo and her older brother, Jimmy Oh, established Singapore’s first preschool offering an inquiry-based programme at Broadrick Road in 1995.
“It was very hard to convince parents to stay at EtonHouse initially. This is because we did not do worksheets. When the children went home, the parents asked them, ‘What did you learn?’ The children were obviously very happy and said, ‘We played.’ Parents do not want to pay $1,000 a month for children to play. There was pressure to change tack,” she recalls.
Gim Choo felt strongly against changing the curriculum to align with the rote learning style in mainstream schools here, a belief that was borne out of her own personal experience as a mother. At EtonHouse, a love of reading is instilled in children to nurture and mould them into lifelong learners. Growing emotional resilience and social awareness in developing minds is a key focus too.
“When I started EtonHouse, I approached it from the angle of parents. As a parent of three children, I believe I understood their needs. Of course, there are always challenges in managing parents’ expectations. All parents want to give the very best education to their children. Focusing on literacy numeracy and cognitive development to ensure excellent academic achievement is important.
“However, children need to build confidence to develop social and emotional skills. They also need to have strong and healthy bodies with physical education. Very often, parents place too much emphasis on academic achievement,” she says.
Doubling down on her philosophy, Gim Choo forged forward despite accumulating about $1 million in losses during the company’s first year.
“We have always placed children at the centre of all decision-making. Children come first, teachers second, and shareholder returns come last. If you invest in quality, returns will follow. Education, unlike other businesses, is the opposite of transactional, and one should always be willing to invest and focus on quality and sustainability. In the first year, we made losses, the second year, we broke even, and in the third year, we were profitable,” she says.
We have always placed children at the centre of all decision-making. Children come first, teachers second, and shareholder returns come last.
Today, EtonHouse International Education Group has 20,000 students and 120 schools in 11 countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. This comprises more than 40 EtonHouse schools, including 22 E-Bridge preschool centres, in Singapore. The group’s global expansion has contributed to the doubling of its annual revenue to $200 million over the past five years. Domestically, EtonHouse will be opening new branches across Singapore in the coming year.
Shares Gim Choo: “Our new Middleton West Coast campus opened in February this year, and we are also expanding The Eton Academy enrichment centres in Sengkang and Woodleigh, and our E-Bridge schools towards the end of 2022.”