Nurturing Critical Thinkers and Lifelong Learners

Mrs. Ng Gim Choo, Founder and Managing Director of EtonHouse International Education Group, is a person with many facets. She successfully spearheaded the expansion of EtonHouse across Asia with carefully selected partners and well thought strategies. Starting with one school in Singapore, EtonHouse is today in 12 countries with 100 schools and more than 12,000 students from different nationalities. Mrs. Ng is actively involved in many philanthropic initiatives including the Sichuan earthquake and the Japan disaster. She also donated her cash prize of $10,000 for scoring a hole-in-one at the Warren Golf Club Charity Open to Pathlight School. Her contribution towards Suzhou city in China as well as other places in Asia has received many accolades like the “Honorary Citizen of Suzhou Award”.

Mrs.Ng is the first Singaporean Woman to receive the Freedom of the City of London, one of the oldest surviving awards in the UK for her contribution to international education.

In 2015, to celebrate the 20th anniversary for EtonHouse, Mrs. Ng started the EtonHouse Community Fund, a standalone charity dedicated to improving the lives of children through education and raised more than $300,000 for charity. She enjoys playing golf and is fond of creating flower arrangements. “The scenery on the golf course is beautiful. I can enjoy the trees, the flowers and the birds while I play. You also get to play with different people. After a round of 18 holes of golf, you get to know your golf kakis better: either this person is a risk taker or is risk averse.” she says.

EtonHouse International Education Group offers a programme where children are encouraged to become confident and capable global citizens through an inquiry-based programme. The EtonHouse schools nurture critical thinkers and lifelong learners. The curriculum, with its successful track record over over 20 years responds to the individual child. It is dynamic and fosters a strong dual language foundation. Team ABT reached out to Mrs. Ng to understand more about her personal and professional journey.

What led you to setup an Education Institution?

After graduation, I worked as an auditor for more than ten years. In the 80s, when I was in London, my daughter went to a pre-school there. She enjoyed going to school every day including weekends, when she would put on her uniform and insist on going to school. Frankly speaking, we could not understand this. To us, schooling had never been fun or a joyful experience from pre-school all the way to university. To unravel this mystery, my husband encouraged me to go to school as a parent volunteer.  So I went to school to help & noticed that the educational philosophy was very different what I had experienced back home. Teachers thoroughly enjoyed teaching, listened to the children and made learning an enjoyable experience.

The children learned through inquiry and play. When we returned to Singapore, we tried very hard to look for a similar school.  We couldn’t find one coming anywhere close to the school in London. The inspiration from my daughter and encouragement from my family members motivated me to set up EtonHouse. Of course the Singapore education system has changed so much that most schools now believe & have a system where children learn through play in their early years.

Who is your greatest inspiration, why?
My grandmother. She had a great business mind. We have a family business that manufactures sesame oil called Oh Guan Hing Sesame Oil factory. It is more than 100 years old. My grandmother was the one who started the business with my grandfather. She was also a great home maker. She had three sons and we all lived under one roof. She was a very influential person at home. We lived in a big house with my cousins, aunties and uncles, next to the factory. There were more than thirty people living in the house, and my grandmother managed it all. She believed in the power of education.

My childhood was happy, fun and memorable. When my older cousins went to school, I had no one to play with me at home. I cried and demanded that I wanted to go to school just like my cousins. My grandma who loved me very much decided to take me to school to meet the principal. She told the principal to allow me to study in primary one at the age of five. She also promised the principal, that if I was unable to catch up with lessons, she would voluntarily take me out of the school. There was no looking back from then.

Tell us about the initiatives at EtonHouse International School

Here are some of the initiatives that are quite close to my heart.

Professional development including overseas study trips. Setting up of “REACH” – We started our own in-house training centre, invested in our teachers, developed them professionally and in line with global best practice. Quality has always been the cornerstone of everything we do. We never lost sight of quality control. It is especially important to maintain the quality of your home base when you expand. EtonHouse runs its in-house research and professional development centre -EtonHouse Education Centre (EEC) that provides continuous training and pedagogical support to EtonHouse educators. In 2013, EtonHouse in collaboration with Reggio Children, started REACH (Reggio Emilia in Asia for Children) the International Network in Asia, to enhance communication, dialogue and professional development opportunities between Reggio Children and early childhood professionals in Asia.

Revisiting our curriculum – In early 2000, we reflected on our curriculum to see if we were in line with international best practice. Our benchmark has always been global standards and we believe in taking the leadership stance and offer what is considered an excellent education for children. Inquiry and Play as validated by research is the best and the only way children learn. Gone are the days of Home work and worksheets and topic based work pre-determined by adults. But implementing an inquiry based curriculum in the early years was not easy. It required a certain staffing profile, very rich ratios, alignment with a respected international approach and the most difficult of all convincing parents that this is right for their children. We were the first in Singapore back in the day to introduce the concept of play and inquiry in the early years when everyone was offering the traditional approach to learning. It was a bold step but we knew it was the right thing to do.

E-Bridge Pre-School – In early 2014, EtonHouse was selected by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in Singapore to be part of the Anchor Operator (AOP) Scheme to launch E-Bridge Pre-School, providing high quality and affordable early childhood services for Singaporean families. Today, we have 10 E-Bridge campuses, including Singapore’s very first Large Childcare Centre that can accommodate 500 children.

Middleton International School – This year, we opened Middleton International School, an International school with fees nearly half of other international schools in Singapore. We do not compromise on the quality standards of the school, but instead worked towards bringing down the operating costs by running on a relatively lower rent, using external spaces for sports and other co-curricular activities and through economies of scale that we accrued over the years, as a result of running many schools in Singapore.

Tell us about challenges that you face & how do you overcome them

Manpower – Shortage of trained teaching staff in the early years is a wide ranging phenomenon. Native Mandarin speakers with qualifications in early childhood are very hard to find in Singapore. EtonHouse Education Centre, with a team of pedagogists offer ongoing professional development to staff through mentoring/consultancy programmes and professional development. We also regularly organise industry forums and workshops that attract educators from all over the world. EtonHouse educators have the opportunity to participate in annual study trips to Reggio Emilia, Northern Italy.

Suitable sites – Singapore being highly urbanized, it is getting increasingly challenging to secure suitable pre-school premises with outdoor spaces. In 2013, we started to consider indoor facilities as well. We are happy to have successfully brought elements into our indoor, where children still have access to large open areas for gross motor experiences, as well as feel connected to nature with the many natural elements within the indoor learning spaces.

Parents’ expectations on their children – Many parents are concerned that their children are not prepared well for Primary 1, and are not familiar with how a play-and-inquiry approach (as opposed to worksheets and tests) can lay a solid foundation to their children’s future. We work in close collaboration with parents through Curriculum Evenings and Parent-Teacher Meetings, regularly communicating our detailed observations of their children’s learning dispositions, and how they are achieving learning milestones.  Having delivered our curriculum successfully for over 22 years & established an outstanding track record, parents have now come to value and appreciate the EtonHouse approach.

How is Technology & Social media influencing your business?
At EtonHouse, we value the spontaneity, richness and diversity that technology lends to our inquiry based programme. ICT is no longer a subject but is integrated into every aspect of learning. Robotics, coding and design technology are important tools and skills that our children need to be equipped with. But most importantly, they need to develop a sense of responsibility and ethical behaviour while using technology. Social skills, empathy and the ability to distinguish right from wrong while using digital and social media is as important as knowing how to use them.

Social media has become an integral communication tool, especially for us to share relevant content on education & parenting. Through different content formats, we are now able to reach out to parents to address their pain points and goals around parenting. Our in-house experts create rich and valuable content which we are able to distribute on social and reach out to more parents.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?
The demand for good schools will remain strong as parents appreciate the value of a strong foundation. We will continue our efforts to stay relevant to our families and provide education that is cutting edge and in line with best practice.