Meet the Head: Middleton International School

We met the principal at one of Singapore’s most affordable international schools to talk about how she can deliver a quality, through-train education for less than $20,000 per year.
Meet the Head: Middleton International School
By Carli Allan
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Atima Joshi is a principal who leads from the heart. She took the bold decision to move from Middleton’s well-established and popular Bukit Timah campus to found a new school on a shoestring budget. Since opening Middleton's Tampines campus in May 2018, Joshi has never been scared to get her hands dirty – whether that’s scrubbing the floors to help get the school open on time, sitting in on a maths or English class, or doing playground duty.

We spoke with Joshi to find out why creativity is so important in education, why less is more when it comes to resources, and what makes the Middleton brand so special.

Read our review of Middleton International School (Tampines) here – and learn more about our campus tour here.
The Middleton Tampines campus

With fees of $15,000 for primary and $17,250 in Grades 6-8, Middleton is nearly 50% cheaper than many other international schools in Singapore. How can you offer a quality education for less?

When we founded this school, we made it very clear that we would not compromise on the EtonHouse philosophy, the quality of teaching staff, and our belief in a rigorous, inquiry-led education. That means that the only place we could make cuts is in operations. The key to opening this school was having a strong, solid opening team who understand what a good school be.

We’re very honest and transparent with parents that this is what we can offer you, and this is what we can’t. As an affordable school we need to have slightly larger class sizes, which we manage by having a quality teacher. They have the skills to manage these big numbers, which aren’t even that big. We have a maximum of 28 students per class, and we will always cap it at that number.

Also, we talk about access and not ownership. As long as we have access to quality resources then we don’t need to own them. So, whether we’re borrowing books from the national library or having parents come in to offer learning experiences, they don’t incur much cost.

Teaching at Middleton follows the International Primary Curriculum (IPC), which takes a very creative, thematic approach to teaching. Why have you decided to fully embrace the IPC rather than following the IB programme that’s offered elsewhere in the EtonHouse group?

The EtonHouse ethos is in our DNA, but Middleton is a brand of its own. We wanted brand separation from EtonHouse, which offers the IB curriculum, and we don’t want to cannibalise our brand. The IPC has very user-friendly lesson plans, which teachers can use as a basic framework to work from. It’s then up to the teacher’s creativity to enhance this lesson.

Because our hiring is so diverse, we want to ensure that no student falls through the gaps. We want to make sure that everyone reaches the benchmarks, and then goes beyond them. The IPC is still hands-on and a very inquiry-based, conceptual curriculum, like the International Baccalaureate programme, but it is an easier curriculum to teach.

On campus at Tampines

After Grade 7, you’re one of very few schools in Singapore to offer a combination of IGCSEs and A Levels. Why offer this pathway rather than the IBDP?

It was a cost consideration – the IBDP is an expensive programme to deliver. If one of our students wants to study the IBDP, though, they have the opportunity to go and study at our EtonHouse Orchard campus.

The beauty of being part of the EtonHouse group is that we can students a choice of pathways, and that is one of our strengths.

Your website says that the “Middleton programmes aims to develop 21st-century skills”. How can you deliver this without having the latest technology and trendy innovation labs that so many international schools have here in Singapore?

Technology is going to change in the future, and what we have today may not be around in 20 years. Instead we’re focused on developing every child’s resilient mindset and the ability to be resourceful. It’s always been one of my philosophies and now I’m really having to live it at this school because I don’t have the money!

I believe that the more resources children get, the less resourceful they become. You will only develop these creative skills when you don’t have everything put in front of you.

We’re always trying to get our students to solve problems and be resourceful. In Grade 1 for example, the children were trying to build structures using salt dough and it wasn’t drying, so we asked the children, what do we do? In a kindergarten class we took away their paint and asked them how we could make it. The first attempt was very diluted, so the teacher asked the children what they could try next. It’s not the teacher solving the problem, it’s the children. We’re also teaching them how to deal with disappointment, and we’re pushing boundaries of problem-solving.

That said, we do also use a lot of IT and we have a BYOD programme from Grade 4 onwards.

As one of Singapore’s more affordable schools, you can’t offer students state-of-the-art facilities such as modern makerspaces. Does this restrict you in terms of teaching a modern curriculum?

How do you foster creativity? It’s not about the space you have, it’s about the mindset. What can you do with the materials? We want students to develop their independence of thought and self-manage their own learning, so we give them the freedom to be creative.

Play increases creativity – but it doesn’t need expensive equipment. You’ll see our loose parts playground, which has a lot of natural materials such as logs and woodchips, as well as obstacles such as oil barrels. We’re always looking to rescue and revamp materials to help us build a purposeful playground. We’re always working on a sound garden, which will have a xylophone made from old pipes for example.

I strongly believe that play should be extended upwards, it is not for pre-school students only. It helps to develop motor skills, enhance creativity, and establishes links between the right and left brain.

The play area at the Tampines campus

The Tampines campus has a sprawling campus with capacity for 1,000 students, making it much larger than your sister Bukit Timah school with just 125 students. How are you building the close-knit community that EtonHouse schools are well-known for?

We now have 360 students and we have a very strong sense of community here. Our teachers are not service providers and our parents are not customers; we are a family. The Upper Bukit Timah camus is so small and everyone knows each other there, and we’ve been very focused on creating this same culture at the much larger Tampines campus. We’ve managed to do this because some of the original Middleton team came here to help scale up that culture; this culture has become part of who we are and it’s very important to us.

For example, we have a community support group instead of a parent association. So, it’s not parents vs the school here, it’s a community. We’re open enough here for parents to approach us directly if they have any suggestions or concerns.

You moved into a former purpose-built, government-run vocational institution. How has it been renovated to meet the needs of an all-through school?

This was a very didactic building that was designed for technical tertiary education, which wouldn’t work for our children. So we decided to tear down all the walls and redesign it. We asked our students teachers and parents from Bukit Timah for their input; for example we went to a parent who was a theatre designer and asked for their expertise on how to design a black box theatre here. We’ve then be able to build a dream together.

We purposefully designed this building to be open. There is a great sense of transparency and collaboration here – and we have glass-fronted classrooms as this opens up the idea that nothing is hidden. The students here are very comfortable with myself and other teachers going into their classrooms. There is a strong sense of collaboration and teachers are encouraged to go into other classes and get ideas. Parents often ask if the students get distracted, but they don’t. The learning engagement is so solid here and the teachers are engaging their students.

In the classroom at Middleton's Tampines campus

What does Middleton offer in terms of student wellbeing?

A school can run a student wellbeing programme, but it’s not sustainable if it doesn’t come from the teachers and the students. They need to own it.

So, for example, we’ve been looking at mindfulness. We’ve embedded positive psychology routines into the units of the curriculum, rather than adding on another programme. We want to equip our students with strategies to solve their own issues instead of coming to the teachers. In a recent assembly, we asked all students to tell us how we can make the school safe, and then the Grade 6 students took these ideas, created posters about them, and presented back to the whole-school assembly.

You’ve worked for the EtonHouse group for 16 years. What has been your biggest challenge so far in opening up this new school on a budget?

We had an extremely short timeline for opening. It was all hands-on deck to get the school ready to open in May 2018; our play equipment was made by our CFO, our CEO was scrubbing the floors and so on. We are all invested in it. We all wear multiple hats, and we’re not very departmentalised as we are a lean team. We have to be a strong collaborative team, and we’ve quickly learnt that we can overcome anything.

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