Allison O’Reilly is not only Invictus’ founding vice principal but also one of its teachers and parents. Born in America, O’Reilly has 20 years’ experience teaching at primary schools in the US, Tokyo and Singapore. As well as bursting with huge amounts of pride in her small school, O’Reilly has a happy, friendly and approachable demeanour that fits Invictus perfectly. Here she explains just how one of Singapore’s most affordable schools is delivering a primary education for less than $20,000.
Invictus is a standalone primary school with just under 200 students. What are the advantages of being a smaller school?
I know every child by name, and I’m not sure I could say that if we had 1,000 children! One of the advantages of being such a small school is that everyone knows each other, and to be known by your teachers and your peers makes such a difference. We can deliver a personal primary education that offers greater individual attention.
I like to describe us a boutique primary school that’s small and quaint. There’s such a close-knit community throughout the school. We only have 15 teachers, so it’s easy for us to organise ourselves, stay in touch throughout the school day, and share facilities. We all know everyone else’s students and what their strengths are, which helps us as they move up through the school. There’s also such an inclusive culture; for example, when it comes to birthday parties the parents will happily invite the whole class.
Invictus opened as an affordable school, and your fees are certainly among the lowest for an international primary school in Singapore. How can you deliver a decent education for less?
It’s easy to think that a school with lower fees will not be as good as a more expensive, fancy school. However, our core components are the same as a more expensive school – we simply don’t have additional extras. There’s doubt, obviously, as people wonder how are we can do this for less? They want to know that we’re not compromising on anything that will impact their child’s education.
We have high quality teachers and zero staff turnover since we opened, which is testament to the quality of this school. Also, we are very resourceful. For example, we’re looking into the possibility of having a gymnastic module in the timetable, an eight-week period where students can go to a real gymnastics studio around the corner and use professional facilities. We’ve asked informally if parents would pay around $10 for this and they’ve been very enthusiastic. It’s all part of being an affordable school.
Have you had to make cutbacks in terms of technology?
We may not have the latest gadgets and technology, but we do use apps such as Class Dojo to connect teachers with students and parents and online Learning Logs for our children to share their learning. While we’re working on getting more equipment such as iPads and laptops for each class, technology will never be the focus of this school. We have a natural environment at Invictus, so we focus on that instead.
And what about extra-curricular activities?
All our teachers offer an ECA every term, most of which are academic as that’s what the parents wanted; these are mostly charged at $30 an hour, which I think is reasonable. Also, we are working with local providers just a two-minute walk away, including a gymnastics centre, art studio and Mandarin school, to offer additional activities such as coding, yoga and rhythmic gymnastics.
What brand of education are you offering at Invictus?
When I went to school I had one really good teacher who taught me everything, and that’s a good model to follow. Six-year-olds don’t need a golf specialist, a pottery teacher, a symphony hall and so on. Yes, they can use these extras and it’s lovely to have them but, especially at primary level, it’s more important to deliver a solid, inquiry-based education to set them up for success.
The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) takes a very creative, thematic approach to teaching. Why has Invictus decided to embrace the IPC fully?
The IPC is inquiry-based and it’s open-ended enough for children to research and ask questions about what really interests them. The interesting and inspiring themes of the IPC pair so well with the creativity of Invictus. We believe that the IPC Is challenging enough for children of all abilities, and it’s exciting to see how our children respond to the IPC and progress throughout the school year.
We teach maths based on the high standards of the Singapore MOE curriculum, but it is delivered in the context of the IPC. So, while our children are learning the mathematical concepts and skills laid out by the MOE, we use projects and other activities rather than relying on the Singapore textbooks.
You are surrounded by nature at this campus in Dempsey Hill. Do you use this to deliver a programme of outdoor education?
We take the classroom outside and give students direct experiences with the outdoors. There are no hallways at Invictus and you’re not contained within a large building. Instead, you’re faced with nature. We can offer children safe, experiential learning within a wild, jungle-like setting – with bugs! We facilitate our teachers to use the environment as much as possible. For still life drawings, for example, we don’t bring in the bowl of fruit, we go outside and draw some trees.
How does the homework policy fit in with the IPC?
We have learning logs rather than homework at Invictus, and there are examples of this work proudly displayed on the walls of the principal Mary Ann’s office. Rather than sending home worksheets, we set a task every week that encourages the children to explore and create something. It’s very flexible and individual.
What are the key challenges you face as vice principal here?
At the moment, Grades 4 and 5 have lessons together as there are only 10 and nine in each class respectively. We are always going to be heavy at the bottom and light on the top as families don’t want to join a lower primary school in the final years. Also, we know that we can be used as a waiting area or holding spot by some parents, whether they are only in Singapore for a year or they are waiting to be accepted at another school with a long waitlist. We’re happy to offer that to families if needed as we are giving children the IPC skills needed to continue their education elsewhere.
As good as we are, we’re realistic about who’s coming to our school and how we can best help them.
Invictus has zero teacher turnover to date. What makes this school so appealing to teachers?
We have a very international team of teachers – from Thailand, the US, the UK, Ireland, India, China and Singapore – and no one has left since we opened! We can’t offer the salaries of some of the bigger schools, but we do offer a great work-life balance, which makes them happy to come to school every day. And that’s so important. If the person standing at the front of the class wants to be there and is happy to be there, then the children will be happy too. I really love my job and it’s hard to have a bad day here.