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Setting up and running a preschool in Singapore


How does a London stock market researcher establish her own preschool in Singapore? Jackie Barkham, founder of Swallows and Amazons, tells her story.

Born in Hong Kong, Jackie grew up in England. Husband Tim is a hospital doctor, and it was his work that brought them here. Their son Harrison (now 13) was only a year old at the time, and Jackie was pregnant with Sophia (11).

“I did all the baby stuff, mothers’ groups and so on,” she explains. “But after a while, I felt I was losing my grownup English – I needed the mental stimulation of work.”

So she took a basic CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course at the British Council, which very quickly restored her vocabulary. First, she taught English part-time to young adults from the region at Inlingua, then to six- to twelve-year-olds at a local tuition centre; she ended up writing the Primary One curriculum.

“That was a good way to become acquainted with the local culture and education system, and gave me experience in meeting and relating to parents,” says Jackie. 

After a while, SIM (Singapore Institute of Management) asked her to teach English to its undergrads. Then young George (now 9) came along.

From where did the idea for a preschool come?

I used to organise parties for my baby-group friends, and a number of them said I should go into it professionally. I really like the preschool age group! And from my experience with my own and others’ children, I know what they like and what sort of discipline works. 

What’s more, I felt I needed to do something entrepreneurial on my own. After a few years here, Singapore had become home, but it seemed the cost of living increased dramatically from 2002: how were we going to survive here with three children to raise?

How did you go about setting it up?

Tim has been amazingly supportive in this venture. We started thinking about our own values, and what we expected from a preschool.  

During the planning stage, which took nine months, we developed a business plan founded on a strong developmental and educational philosophy, a philosophy that everyone who joins our team must buy into. 

This property was a plant nursery; we used to park near here on Sundays when we came to Turf City for rugby. I thought the large open spaces and surrounding greenery made Turf City ideal, and when I approached the building management, they said this spot was available; but I had to decide very quickly as it would not be available for long. Making that commitment – signing the lease and handing over a large cheque – was a hugely exciting moment!

My mum, an interior designer, helped with the design plans; and as she speaks Cantonese and Mandarin and knows the trade lingo, she dealt wonderfully with the contractors. Then my oldest friend here, Debbie Hughes, who is a qualified accountant, came on board; it’s so important to get the money and the accounting right, so that I don’t have to worry abut that side of things.

We opened in 2008, first with holiday art and music camps for older children, which created a busy atmosphere and spread awareness of what we were doing. Most importantly, I took on a fantastic teacher who had taught my own children. We got to six or seven children fairly quickly, and in the past three years have been slowly growing. I would never open a class until I had exactly the right teacher.

Now we have 92 children on our books, over two sessions: 9am to 12 noon, and 1pm to 4pm. We stay open to 8pm, however.

Why did you choose the name Swallows and Amazons?

The idea just came to me, and it wouldn’t go away. I’ve always loved the series of children’s novels by the same name, set in 1930s England between the wars. When I approached the Arthur Ransome Society for permission to use the name, they were delighted: they felt that the experiences of the child characters in the books – learning through adventurous, independent activity and sheer fun – were reflected in the principles by which we teach.

What is your educational ethos?

Children are always willing learners. They are so interested in life – they want to touch, explore, learn about the world around them; they really want to splash that water, touch that bug!  

So we don’t focus on “teaching” them: instead, we expose them to experiences, presenting the world and its concepts to them in ways that they can engage with and understand. If they are interested, they will listen, and all those problems related to class management just disappear. 

Walking into one of our classes, you won’t immediately be able to say: “Ah, they’re learning numeracy, or literacy, or phonics.” Rather than compartmentalising, we teach concepts as part of a package, a whole.

We use cooking a lot: just one cooking lesson involves vocabulary, numbers, measurement, physical science, nutrition, measurement and more. When our four-year-olds make sushi, it’s a sight to behold!

From what age do you accept children?

From the age of two. You can happily send a two-year-old to preschool if the session is play-oriented and not based on acadaemia. In fact, our longest wait-list is for that age group. 

Emotional development is hugely important. Generally, expat children don’t have extended families, or older cousins to play with; so if they attend preschool two or three mornings a week, they learn how to socialise, they develop role models and they have a lot of fun. For me, the best thing is if one of them cries when their mum comes to pick them up! 

You sound as though you really enjoy your work. Do you?

I love coming to school. There’s a wonderful thrill in starting a project, growing it and seeing it come to fruition.  

Apart from that, I get a real high from the kids’ ability, willingness and inquisitiveness to learn – they are so lovely, and so articulate. Our aim is for every child to leave here each day with a sense of achievement, even if it’s just having put their own water bottle away; and I, too, leave each day with a feeling of achievement and my efforts having been acknowledged. 

This is such a pleasant, green area, and you’re working with children at an age when they adore you. What could possibly be better? 

Any plans for expansion?

Yes, our second school in the planning stage. The main thing now – again! – is to find the ideal location. 

Swallows and Amazons is at 200 Turf Club Road. Call 6762 8158.