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Singapore’s no-frills international schools a hit with budget-conscious expats

by April 25, 2017 General

Alexandra Hempe with her children (from left) Valentina and Sebastian Dueker. — TODAY picAlexandra Hempe with her children (from left) Valentina and Sebastian Dueker. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, April 25  — When her German husband was posted here about one-and-a-half years ago, his remuneration package did not cover education costs — as expat packages used to — which meant they had to keep an eye on the budget.

Finding it difficult to get a place in a local primary school and turned off by the “exorbitant” fees at other international schools, Alexandra Hempe started off homeschooling their eight-year-old son.

When she came across the new Middleton International School, she was attracted to its Mathematics and Chinese language syllabus, which was aligned to the local schools’ curriculum.

That Middleton’s fees are about S$19,000 (RM59,797.65) a year — about one-third lower than the average — another draw for her to enrol their son at the start of this year.

“There is definitely a huge market for parents like myself who can’t afford the expensive school fees,” said  Hempe, a Colombian national.

Middleton is among the latest international schools to start operations here, catering to budget-conscious expatriate families. The other is Invictus Private School, which caps its fees at S$15,000 per year. Other established international schools here typically charge an average of S$30,000 annually.

Both schools, which started operations this year, said an untapped market emerged within the international school sector in Singapore after corporates pared expat packages.

Agreeing, Hempe said expat packages used to cover housing, children’s education and even provided for a car, although she acknowledged that the changing global economy and Singapore’s high cost of living could be other factors behind leaner packages.

“I think companies now prefer single men, single women. Not families, unfortunately,” she said.

Hempe has plans to enrol her six-year-old daughter in Middleton next year.

For Australian national Nikki Welsh, she had considered other institutions such as the Australian International School before enrolling her six-year-old son in Invictus last year. But the 43-year-old housewife found that they were either too far away from her home on Orchard Road or have a large student population.

Apart from its affordable fees, Invictus’ smaller student numbers mean that more attention could be given to her son.

Atima Joshi, principal of Middleton International School, said she has come across expat parents who homeschool their children or even leave Singapore because of high education fees at international schools.

“There are also families who wanted to bring their children here but couldn’t due to the affordability aspect,” she added, in explaining why they started the school.

Middleton and Invictus said they keep their fees down by crunching operating costs, such as by using public facilities for co-curricular activities for students, and outsourcing services like meal preparation.

They also pay lower rent by taking up smaller premises relative to the massive compounds of top-end schools such as Tanglin Trust School and United World College of South East Asia.

For instance, meals provided for students at Invictus are prepared by a catering firm, which is more cost-effective than maintaining a kitchen.

Located on the fifth floor of an office building at Bukit Merah Central, Invictus also holds its swimming lessons at the nearby Bukit Merah Swimming Complex. Students also use the playgrounds within the vicinity.

Mary Ann Davies, principal of Invictus, said that the school was started with the vision of providing a solid academic foundation, stripping away all the “fancy stuff” such as plush amenities, a variety of language courses and specialised teachers.

The school has a class size of 25 children, and key features of its curriculum include a strong emphasis on computer coding, she added.

“Parents like that flexibility, and they’re able to access a far greater variety of activities than I could ever give them,” said  Davies, who has spent 26 years in the education sector.

Meanwhile, as Middleton is run by pre-school operator EtonHouse, it is able to share the same premises with one of its pre-schools located at Upper Bukit Timah, just a few minutes’ walk from Beauty World Centre.

Its students share the same play area as the pre-school students on the building’s top floor. The school has a class size of 28 students.

Although the amenities they provide pale in comparison to other international schools, both schools said there is a healthy demand from expat parents who find fees at top-end international schools just out of reach.

With a student population of 75 in Primary 1 and 2, Invictus is looking to move to Loewen Road at Dempsey Hill — subject to approval by the Committee for Private Education — that can accommodate a tripling of its enrolment figure next year.

The new campus will have a playground, a field and a swimming pool.

Similarly, Middleton is looking to increase its enrolment from 50 students now to 135 next year — the maximum capacity it can hold. After primary school, students at Middleton can move on to EtonHouse Secondary School situated on Broadrick Road.

In the last four years, at least four international schools have sprung up. Besides Invictus and Middleton, the others are Dulwich College and Ge World Academy.

A spokesperson from the Economic Development Board told TODAY that it receives “periodic interests” from international school operators seeking to set up in Singapore and these requests encompass a variety of school models, including those that offer lower fees. — TODAY

* This article was first published here.