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Teaching kids is not child’s play

30 Apr 2018

Staff retention, a brand culture, and governmental commitment is crucial to success in early childhood education

Fiona Walker appears to have it all. Happily married with two teenage children, Scottish by parentage but Singapore-born Walker is a leader in her chosen field, as the Group Managing Director of the Singapore-based early childhood education chain Julia Gabriel Education. An industry veteran with 27 years of experience, she also oversees the Chiltern House Preschools and Chengzhu (成竹) Mandarin Centre and Kindergarten and enjoys what she does but admits that very often it involves a fine balancing act.

“When it comes to prioritising my time, I am afraid exercise tends to fall to the bottom of the list,” Walker concedes, listing out the one thing that she often sacrifices in juggling work and family.

She recognises that working in an industry that is female-centric and family-focused has made a great difference, not only encouraging but also supporting a work-life balance that one would not normally find in typical corporate environments.

She adds: “Julia Gabriel Education places high importance on the nurturing of positive relationships with our employees and we take time to listen and understand their needs and try to accommodate them to the best of our abilities. The company recognises that children are an integral part of our lives and is very flexible when it comes to staff taking extra time off for them when it’s necessary.”

“This is particularly essential when you have a work force comprising mainly of women, who take on different roles and responsibilities at different stages of their lives, from getting married, having kids and also to taking care of their elderly parent etc. We recognise the importance and the need to accommodate special arrangements such as working part-time or from home to achieve the work-life balance that our employees value.”

An example that Walker shared with Perspectives@SMU was when she was able to enroll her children in the PlayNest programme (6-18 months old) at Julia Gabriel Centre soon after returning to work from maternity leave, an option often taken up by many of their staff too. “This option makes it possible and completely acceptable to feed your babies before or after class [and] be able see them all day long, which translates into a positive environment and happier staff, which is intrinsic to our company’s values.”

The significance of having children close at hand in their formative years is something that the company encourages not only by giving employees discounts on fees but also rewarding long-serving staff with 10 or more years of service who are able to enrol their children for free. While this may seem to come at a monetary cost, the returns of loyalty is an invaluable asset, and the company’s high staff retention rates speaks for itself, particularly in Singapore’s early childhood education sector which has been facing a manpower crunch for many years now.

“What this means is that we keep our culture, with a team of long term staff who share the same values, which is also reflected in the work that we do,” Walker explains. “When you come into a Julia Gabriel Centre, be it in Singapore or overseas, there is the same positive and upbeat vibe and that to us is very special and really important.

“Being educators, we are inspired by progression. We are constantly learning and evolving to become better educators, parents, and people in general. We do not strive for perfection, but pursue excellence. We want to empower every learner to succeed in school and in life."

She adds: "Thus at Julia Gabriel Education employee training is a priority and by providing life-long learning opportunities, our employees also feel that their contribution to the organisation is appreciated and valued. When they see their own progress, they are willing to stay with the organisation and play a big role in contributing to the children’s development through the programmes that we run.”

When asked about her thoughts on the issue of rising costs in the early childhood education sector and government subsidies, Walker shared some observations from her recent trip to Norway and London, which was organised by the Early Childhood Development Authority (ECDA Singapore) and SPRING Singapore. “The preschool teachers in these countries are very well-paid because early childhood education is heavily subsidised which not only mandates high qualifications but also attracts a large talent pool for the job, which are good models for Singapore to emulate.”

Walker highlights a conundrum faced by parents worldwide: “Finding the right and suitable school and teachers who are able to care for the children, offer age-appropriate programmes, focus on their development and well-being, and importantly also prepare them for the future and their next level of education. The question many parents ask themselves is how do you enable that without making the years prior to formal schooling unpleasant?”

“Our answer to that is to ensure that they are happy, confident and up for the challenge. You want them to be resilient so that when something doesn’t go right , they should just gear up to try again. We firmly believe that building confidence and developing positive character traits in children is more important and will see them go a lot further than only being able to do multiplication or spell a word correctly. That is what Chiltern House preschools, Julia Gabriel and our Chengzhu Mandarin centres aim to instil through our programmes.”

As a mother of two teenagers, what does Walker have to say to would-be parents and those in the trenches of early childhood?

“Enjoy it. Do not try to know everything. Parenthood is a massive learning curve. Don’t stress yourself out to be prepared for everything that is going on. Once your child is born you are about to start learning at a rate that you probably never have.“

 

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Last updated on 30 Apr 2018 .

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