Renowned Singaporean education brand Etonhouse first came to Dongguan in 2006. It all started with a phone call. Executive Director Grace Aik said “yes” to opening a school, and the rest is history.
Stepping into the gardens of EtonHouse International School and upon meeting the reception staff, there was most definitely an air of tranquility and togetherness about the place. A great start. Just like the inception of one of the most renowned international education brands, EtonHouse, originating in Singapore in 1995. Brought to Dongguan in 2006, EtonHouse International School was the very first EtonHouse franchise to ever operate, as well as the second EtonHouse school to open in the whole of China, following Suzhou.
Executive Director of EtonHouse, Grace Aik, explained, “One day my friend gave me a call and asked if I was interested in building a school, and I knew straight away that I wanted to be a part of that.” Originally from Singapore, Grace studied business in the U.S. and before opening the school, she came to China to help with her family business. After unveiling a combined elementary and middle school in September 2003, Grace and her partners realized that there was a need for an international school, so after deliberating and cooperating with EtonHouse, they introduced the brand’s first franchise school here in Dongguan.
“I think education is very important; Singapore really places high value on education. Singapore is very cosmopolitan, and growing up there, I benefitted from a bilingual education for sure,” Grace continued, “China is ready for an education that differs from the one they have always been used to—Chinese people are more openminded and more are going overseas than before, so an international perspective is emerging.”
Of course, opening a school comes with all kinds of challenges and obstacles, and this case was no different. Grace and those involved had to put a lot of hard work into the development, especially having no local connections back then, so it was all about starting out and getting connected as much as possible. Grace recalled “handing out flyers to gather interest and get enrollments; it was not easy.”
The government cooperated with the school founders, but 2003 was the beginning of the government opening up a private education sector, and of course with it being a school owned by a local company and ran by foreign staff, there were procedures in place. EtonHouse now boasts three institutions in Dongguan, with two more ongoing projects. Having opened in September this year—the latest development within the expansion project—EtonHouse Foreign Language School in Huangjiang seems to be the first case of an international brand to open a local school in China perhaps—and definitely in Dongguan. Admirably, it is also the first EtonHouse school to “go local” outside of Singapore.
Grace commented, “Our international school has been successful in Dongguan so that paved the way for opening more; we have built relationships with the community over the years. As a foreign language school with a local license, we still have to meet the Chinese requirements including fulfilling nine years of syllabus; however, we add a crucial dimension with our international culture of learning. Options for school choices depends on your plan for your child.”
Comparing EtonHouse Foreign Language School with another foreign language school for example, they have less students per class and many more English-based classes and subjects taught in English, for all students. Unlike other bilingual schools, EtonHouse’s ethos of incorporating a high degree of hands-on skills, creative thinking and students leading their own learning makes all the difference too.
According to Grace, “Right now this is an ever-changing world, different from 10 or 20 years ago—EtonHouse philosophy is the essence of our schools.” Something which really stood out to me with EtonHouse was the true feeling of student-centered learning, holism, and encouraging autonomy. Speaking from experience, there are certainly schools which push their students extremely hard in terms of typical academic learning, often supported by the parents, in an attempt to further their prospects. However, I truly believe that the holistic approach is the more effective way. Getting students to think more critically, be creative and independent, is what makes EtonHouse education stand out, and why their students will bring innovation, creativity and so much more in the future.
The overall EtonHouse philosophy that has developed in Dongguan stretches between the staff and students and among the staff themselves. Methods are in place such as a buddying system and team building group activities, ensuring that colleagues are there to support and encourage each other, allowing for effective teamwork. Similarly, in keeping with their ethos, EtonHouse hosts workshops to bring teachers and schools in the community together, a commitment to guiding those involved in education.
When asked if she could go back in time to her younger self at the start of this journey and give herself a piece of advice, Grace responded, “I would definitely tell myself to ‘never give up’ as perseverance is necessary, especially when there are so many unforeseen forces that will tempt you to just quit.” She added warmly, “I have a great team that really supports me. The most important thing about this job is the team, without a doubt.”