John Fearon: A Game Changer in Education?

South African tech entrepreneur John Fearon is so invested in his children’s education that he founded his own low-cost international school in Singapore, Invictus. What began as a small standalone primary, now looks set to expand into a small global family of primary and secondary schools. But, as Fearon appears to be blazing his own trail of education, can he really deliver a quality education for less and will others follow?
John Fearon: A Game Changer in Education?
By Carli Allan
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Invictus, to many, means undefeated. In Singapore, however, the word has also become synonymous with no frills, low cost education. And that is just what the founder of the Invictus International School group, John Fearon, wants.

Launched in 2016, Invictus is a relative newcomer to the international school scene in Singapore. But for such a small school – there are just 350 students at its founding campus in Dempsey Hill – it has quickly made a big name for itself. Why? Well, in a strong expat community where international tuition fees typically range from $20,000 to $40,000-plus, Invictus is offering a primary education for just $17,000 a year.

Invictus is not the only international school to offer annual fees below $20,000, but it was one of the first to try and fill this gap in the market. While many well-established schools are still able to fill places for annual fees of up to $50,000, South African entrepreneur John Fearon saw an opportunity to make an international education more affordable to expat families. And, after launching his first primary school in an office block four years ago, his sights are now set on global expansion with more schools in Singapore, as well as Hong Kong and Cambodia.

Read more: Invictus to open new secondary and bilingual primary school in Singapore.


Invictus' Dempsey Hill campus in Singapore

Will Invictus change the status quo?

Is Invictus shaking up Singapore’s private education sector by going against the grain? John Fearon has entered the market at a time when competition for school places is not as fierce as it used to be, and we are seeing shorter waitlists at even the most top tier schools. Expat packages are shrinking and finding the money to pay school fees is a growing challenge for families who have relocated here.

The time seems ripe for an alternative to the traditional and more expensive international schools; it’s not needed or wanted by everyone, but the demand is there.

Fearon believes that he is “changing the status quo” by offering an "aggressive, asset-led model" that undercuts other schools without compromising on quality. Invictus, he says, is an affordable, parent-centric model of education that puts education first, business second.

“It’s always been needed here, but the decline of the expat package has exacerbated the situation,” he says.

The choice of affordable international schools is limited to less than 20 in Singapore, and Invictus has strongly positioned itself as one of the most ‘international’ options.

Fees are $17,000 for primary, $18,800 for secondary; early bird fees are as low as $11,900; it doesn’t charge the capital levy that many schools do; and parents can make monthly tuition fee payments. Also, the cost of securing a place at Invictus is $2,500 (including application and enrolment fee), which is considerably cheaper than the Singapore average of $6,000.

While, Fearon will gloss over the less exciting parts of growing his business, there’s no doubt that he has launched Invictus after plenty of careful planning.

So, does Fearon believe that he is a competitor or an alternative to the more well-established school groups in Singapore, including the likes of Cognita-run Australian International School, Nord Anglia’s Dover Court International School, and EtonHouse’s family of schools?

“We see an opportunity to grow a private educational business in the market. You don’t see Nord Anglia, Cognita or GEMS taking our approach. We’re a different model, we have a different sector of the market.

“I think that we can make the pie bigger. We don’t need to compete for $30,000 students, and we don’t need to take their students; there are enough students. For some parents whose financial circumstances have changed, they now have the option of going to a government school or coming to us – and I think we offer an interesting option.”

Invictus can't (and won't) compete against the likes of top tier schools such as Tanglin, Dulwich College (Singapore) and Singapore American School – there are existing schools with new campuses such as GESS and Nexus, and new schools opening in 2020 such as NLCS and Brighton College to do that. Instead, its key rivals will be lower cost schools such as Middleton (Tampines), One World International School (OWIS), and The Grange Institution. Fearon’s eye, however, is focused solely on his schools.

“We come from a lower base than Middleton and OWIS, which come from much bigger organisations and they can open much bigger schools straight off the bat. We came from a small, home-grown start-up environment; we didn’t start with the resources they started with or we didn't win huge tenders from the government. We have to fight for every yard.

“Both EtonHouse and GIIS have long track records, and both have good quality management. I have respect for all of them. Our problems don’t lie with what they’re doing, it’s more important that we look at what we’re doing.”

 


Invictus is open for Grades 1 to 8 at its Dempsey campus in Singapore

How can an international school afford to be cheaper?

What Fearon is doing is offering parents a stripped-back version of an international education. It is an education model that he prefers to describe as “accessible” rather than low cost and, with all the connotations that come with the latter, it’s a distinction well made. He’s very defensive towards any comparison between Invictus and a low-cost airline too!

“We’re not cutting away good teaching, we’re not cutting away good curriculum, and we’re not cutting away things that ultimately matter for your child’s future. Instead, we’re cutting away things that shouldn’t matter for your child or are inefficiencies in the market.

“We’re very honest with people. No, we don’t have an indoor swimming pool or Olympic-style running track, but can your child live without it? Yes, probably. Traditional, expensive schools will have a teacher and a teaching assistant (TA) in every class, but do they need a TA all the time? No, just occasionally. What do schools actually need? I question every cost.

“We don’t have large middle management in our schools; you won’t find positions such as chief operating officer here because we have this wonderful tech platform that manages everything. Of course, we have the right people in place on the ground, such as admissions officers and secretaries, but we don’t have a management layer of people that you find in traditional schools. That’s a saving that we can then pass onto the parent.”

There’s no shortage of international schools in Singapore boasting state-of-the-art sports, arts and academic facilities, but Fearon questions the need. He asks, why is the interactive whiteboard the gold-standard in educational technology? Why build a FIFA-standard football pitch when your students can access a public playing field located next to a campus for free? Why invest in building a huge library on campus when a student can walk to the local public library? And why build a parent café when there’s a Jones the Grocer serving cappuccinos around the corner?

“Yes, these facilities are all amazing, but that’s a cost that the parents have to bear. We don’t believe that this cost should be forced upon the parent; it should be an option.

“You should never be pushed to pay more than you need to,” adds Fearon, explaining why he has outsourced two of the main things he feels parents complain about – transport and food. Students are transported across Singapore by Schoolber, a private ride-sharing service for schoolchildren, and they bring in their own packed lunch.

But how can Invictus compete against large campuses that dazzle families with their modern facilities and steel and glass architecture? To Fearon, it’s all about finding the ‘wow’ factor that resonates with the key decision-maker he refers to as “mum”: Would the mum want to stay and linger at the school...

“It’s not complicated, a school has just got to be strikingly beautiful. You’ve also got to ask yourself, would I be happy as a child here?”

Walk onto the leafy green Dempsey campus and through the corridors of its low-rise heritage buildings, and it feels charming and homely – but this is a unique location which Fearon knows cannot become part of the Invictus ‘brand’. As he says, “I can’t replicate the nature of the Dempsey campus, but I can make every campus beautiful.”

Invictus’ Sentosa campus has a waterfront location, which is above a pizza restaurant but has floor to ceiling windows overlooking the marina; the new Invictus (Centrium) is located within a mixed-use development in a built-up area of central Singapore; and its new Hong Kong campuses in the Chai Wan and Tseung Kwan O are located within mixed-use developments either by the water or national parks.

Whether these campuses have the ‘wow’ factor of Dempsey remains to be seen.

Invictus Sentosa
Rooms with a view at Invictus' Sentosa campus

A lesson in delivering a quality education for less?

Invictus is one of just 10 international schools in Singapore where teaching follows the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) in part or full; this thematic approach to teaching subjects is adopted by schools of all budgets, from Middleton Tampines up to SJI International. The IPC is cheaper to teach than the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is taught at many international schools in Singapore, but Fearon asserts that, “it’s lower cost, not lower quality.”

Above curriculum, Fearon believes that teaching and quality learning are intrinsically linked. And, while his budget can be restrictive, he remains personally involved in the selection of teachers from across South East Asia, the UK, the US and Europe.

“The best you can do as a school comes from the best you can do in selecting your teachers. We know it’s an important part of all the top schools. We have to look at everyone in terms of their strengths and balance it with the economics. We can’t afford everyone as cost is such an important piece of the pie for us.”

Singapore has a reputation for academic excellence. In 2019, its average IB score of 34.48 was significantly above the global average of 29.62, and its IGCSE grades are in the top percentage at many schools. Parents’ expectations will remain high, even for a school with lower fees. And rightly so. But is it possible to keep standards high for $17,000 a year?

Invictus only launches its secondary schools this year so it can’t be benchmarked by results. That said, exam results should not be the only measure of a school’s success. The problem is that there’s no metric for measuring all the other work that schools do – the arts, sport, pastoral care and leadership. Fearon remains confident, however, as he believes that the school’s best critics are its parents.

“95% of our students come from other parents who are experiencing Invictus; we’re convincing parents through our fabulous results and other parents.”

When asked how he measures the success of Invictus, Fearon says: “I want its children to be happy, to find careers that fulfil them. I think there’s too much emphasis on schools trying to get good marks. Where do children go after they get their A grades, what happens after that? What are the outcomes? Did they get their university degrees?”

Fearon isn't asking the questions because he has the answers, but because he wants parents to question the value of academic results.

Invictus Centrium
The new Invictus Centrium campus in Singapore, due to open August 2020

John Fearon: the founder, the family man

So, what makes a 41-year-old entrepreneur from South Africa with a strong track record of launching technology start-ups move into the more traditional field of education? Fearon, a father of three children aged five, seven and 10, explains that it was to “solve his own problems”.

There’s a lovely fairytale element to Fearon’s decision to found a school to offer his own children a more affordable education, while simultaneously solving the problem for the less well-off in Singapore.

As he says, “Everyone wants the best for their child, so how do you open up that window for more of the market. Schools can’t be free here, so I’m looking at how you can find a happy medium between affordability and quality?”

The other part of the story is that Fearon is a businessman. In part, Invictus is no different to every other international school in the market. It has an investor – the Chip Eng Seng (CES) group, which also owns the new Perse School, White Lodge Preschools and Repton Schoolhouse – and Fearon himself has invested capital into the school. He also has the benefit of coming from a family of educators, with his father and uncle both having founded schools.

Fearon clearly believes in his own brand of education though – all three of his children attend the Dempsey campus – and he is on a lifetime journey with Invictus. “I have a five-year-old, and I need to make sure they get a good exit in 20 years’ time,” he jokes. Could that be his real reason for branching out into secondary schools in August?

As Fearon talks about the past, you understand how the relaxed nature of Invictus is perhaps Fearon's rebellion against the “stiff upper lip environment” of his high school experience in South Africa. And, after hearing about his success with start-ups including DropMySite, you’d expect entrepreneurship to feature on the Invictus curriculum. You’d be wrong.

“I don’t think most people should be entrepreneurs… being an entrepreneur is painful. As an entrepreneur you put your financial situation, reputation and future in jeopardy. Why would I want to do that?! I think you can give people environments where they can flourish as entrepreneurs, but I don’t think you can give them a lesson in entrepreneurship.

“It’s more a question of teaching children resilience, and to accept that failure is part of the process. That’s the best lesson in life.”

HK Invictus
The location for Invictus' new Hong Kong campus in Tseung Kwan O

An unconquerable future?

As with many entrepreneurs, Fearon is always restlessly moving forwards. In the past six months, the Invictus group has launched a primary campus for Grades 1-2 in Sentosa and expanded its primary campus at Dempsey to offer Grades 7 and 8.

Fearon looks set to remain as the engine that runs Invictus for a long time to come – and he admits that the only thing stopping Invictus from expanding faster and further is “me”.

“We don’t have billions of dollars of capital, so I have to look at each opportunity. Does it make sense? Could we do it cheaper? Eventually I will have to find people I can trust to make those decisions without me. You can go so far alone, but you can go much further with a team around you.”

Over the next six months, Invictus will open its third campus in Singapore – a secondary school and bilingual primary school – primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong, a primary campus in Cambodia, and an after-school programme in Singapore.

What lies ahead for Invictus is a story untold, but there can be no doubting the drive and determination needed to make this 'start-up' a success. Fearon is a man who learnt to do battle throughout his own time in school, and since as an entrepreneur, and in the fight he is bringing to the school sector in the Singapore and beyond, here is a man that clearly intends to remain undefeated.

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