Kindergarten Row

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There are over 200 kindergartens in Penang. The actual number is anyone’s guess: the vast majority, somewhere in the region of 80%, according to state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh – who oversees the state’s welfare portfolio – are unregistered entities.

This largely results from the long list of approvals and requirements one must obtain as a registered preschool. They include a commercial land title (a big stumbling block for kindergartens operating within housing areas), approvals from the local council, Health Department, Fire and Rescue Services, State Education Department and Penang Social Welfare Department.

However, shutting down all unregistered kindys overnight would create a sudden, enormous vacuum of essential services to parents and children, and pose a conundrum to the state.

To explore the sphere of our preschool education, Penang Monthly takes a look at “kindergarten row” on Jalan Macalister. Located next to each other, the Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Society, Universal Hua Xia International School (Penang) and St Christopher’s International Primary School each have their respective unique approaches.

An Early Years classroom at Universal Hua Xia International School (Penang).

Where East Meets West

Opening its doors in January last year, Universal Hua Xia International School (Penang) caters to two groups of children – nursery (ages two and three) and preschool (age four). The venture is the second international school by the Universal Group, which also has the Hua Xia Private High School in KL under its umbrella.

Gwendoline Heng, Hua Xia’s Coordinator of Early Years in Penang, says a total of 52 children currently attend kindergarten at the institution. “We are running the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which is the national curriculum for England. There are three emphases: the teachers, the environment and the strong partnership with the parents,” she says.

The ratio of teachers to students is one to five for nursery and one to eight for preschool, creating an enviable balance among kindergartens in the state. The school also requires all its Early Years teachers to have educational qualifications in either early childhood education or psychology and mandated a minimum two-year working experience.

One of Universal Hua Xia International School (Penang)'s outdoor play areas.

“Every class has at least two English teachers and one Mandarin teacher. One will take charge of the lesson while the others assist. As an international kindergarten, we officially use English as the medium of instruction.

However, here, we have customised our curriculum to the local environment so there is also strong emphasis on Mandarin, which is taught every day in the Early Years,” Heng says. “A lot of our parents enrol because we offer both Mandarin and English at the same time in the class every day for all Early Years students. From age three, we also have two lessons of Bahasa Melayu a week,” she adds.

“We set up our classrooms using the Reggio Emilia approach where we keep things as natural as possible, with a lot of natural light to create a stimulating environment; the environment really plays a big role to spike the children’s interests, imagination and creativity.”

Gwendoline Heng.

The school’s Early Years programme, which is largely play-based, also uses Reggio Emilia to guide the teachers to observe and design their lessons based on the children’s unique interests. “Based on certain themes, teachers will see what piques the children’s attention and use that to come up with the lessons. It is very child-centred and it means that every semester will be different,” she says.

Heng states that parents make up the third strong pillar of Hua Xia’s education programme. “We ask parents to come in every semester for a ‘parents-in-class’ activity. Some tell stories to the children, others even share their expertise with the classes. For example, under the ‘occupation’ theme, we ask parents to share what they do. Whatever that is taught in the class is uploaded to a portal that parents can access to continue the learning at home.”

The school currently has children from more than half a dozen nationalities, with locals accounting for around 80% of the student body. Huge outdoor areas that include a road safety park (complete with tricycles!) and a spacious playground are obvious attractions for both parents and children. Heng adds that the school is currently in the process of expansion and in the midst of upgrading its compound to create a permanent water garden, sandpit and water play area. “We currently only have three classes for the Early Years but come September, we plan on opening another two classes,” she says.

Emphasising Moral Values

Catering to about 60 students in three classes, Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Society’s kindergarten was first set up to accommodate the needs of the society’s members.

Teacher Janice Joan Froude leading a lesson at Che Hoon Khor Kindergarten.

“The kindergarten opened in 2004. At that time, we had over 2,000 members, so the society thought that children from these members would at least make up three classes. But from the look of it nowadays, we find that most of the children are from outside that circle,” says Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Society education section head Yeoh Loy Cheow.

This unique kindergarten is intricately connected with the Moral Uplifting Society’s principles and practises, grounded in their ten core virtues of filial piety, brotherly love, loyalty, sincerity, courtesy, justice, honesty, a sense of shame, humanity and wisdom.

The aim, Yeoh stresses, is to create well-rounded children with strong moral cores. “All Moral Uplifting organisations follow the same set of virtues and disciplines. Moral is taught in kindergartens everywhere but here, it is the centre and emphasis of our teaching. We want to make sure that we can be proud of whatever children we produce – children who know right from wrong,” she says.

The kindergarten runs the National Standard Preschool Curriculum (KSPK). Their medium of instruction is Chinese and emphasis is given to KSPK’s six development components: communication; science and technology; physical development and aesthetics; grooming; humanity; and spirituality, attitudes and values.

Learning here is structured and a more disciplined approach is adhered to in the classroom.

Children are seen at desks and the atmosphere is calm and collected but cheerful. “Some people like international or private school kindergartens because they adopt Western approaches like free play. When it comes to Chinese-run kindergartens, however, parents tend to prefer a more disciplined approach. In the end, we are taking care of local children and preparing them to sit still in primary school. We find that we don’t have so many problems with our children later adjusting to the environment in government schools,” Yeoh says.

“It is very important that they have time slots where they do not have to be at their desks. Most of our children here are in the full-day programme (which runs from 8.30am to 5pm) and every afternoon of the week, we bring in trained, professional teachers to conduct either English speech and drama, wushu, art and drawing, music, or abacus and mental arithmetic,” Yeoh states.

Playtime, periods of physical education, trips to the upstairs library and afternoon activities all give the kids the chance to get up and move around.

Interestingly, food is also a strong emphasis at Che Hoon Khor Kindergarten. Food is prepared and made on site by a specially hired cook. “So many children eat processed food nowadays. But here, where food is concerned, we really want to give the children the best because they are in the developing stage,” says Yeoh.

Utilising the Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Society’s large hall and facilities, the students at this kindergarten are also exposed to the charity work that is the society’s main feature. “These children are always involved with the bigger organisation’s activities that are linked with charity. For example, every end of the year we have a big do (the Harmony Charity Food Fair) where we raise funds for about 20 organisation beneficiaries. The students perform at this event and also participate in different cultural events across the year,” Yeoh says.

(From left) Che Hoon Khor Moral Uplifting Society education section head Yeoh Loy Cheow, Che Hoon Khor Kindergarten teacher Loh Kah Wai and acting kindergarten head Low Poh Eng.

Being a non-commercial entity, fees here are on the low-end of the kindergarten scale. Teachers, too, are not among the highest earning preschool instructors, Yeoh admits, but points out that there are other benefits that come from being involved with Che Hoon Khor Kindergarten. “The society runs a very popular free medical aid centre and our teachers get full access to this. On top of that, our kindergarten is very much a less stressful place to work – since we are not commercialised, our teachers need not worry about recruitment or publicity as we don’t advertise our kindergarten; they can just concentrate on the teaching,” she says.

The kindergarten is currently running at near-full capacity. A new, adjoining building is scheduled to be completed in two or three years. “The society has other projects that are linked with the new building, but we hope to also expand the kindergarten,” she says.

A Balanced Curriculum

With its official address on Jalan Nunn (the school sits on a corner lot facing two roads), St Christopher’s International Primary School (SCIPS) runs three classes for every year group and is currently at full enrolment of about 600 students. Under their Early Years programme, SCIPS runs classes in two age groups – Nursery, for children aged three and four; and Reception, for those aged four and five.

Early Years children enjoying playtime at St Christopher's International Primary School's outdoor learning space.

SCIPS principal Martin Towse says the school was originally set up to educate the children of expatriates. Two small schools – Firrell School and the Western Road School – largely served the early education needs of the expat community in Penang in the 1950s, and in 1964 they merged to establish the St Christopher’s School Association.

“Expat children don’t have as much choice (as locals) in terms of which schools they can attend. They can’t go to a Chinese or national school, so we were set up to educate expat children. Today, despite the quota on Malaysian students attending international schools being lifted, we still keep a ratio of about 40% locals to 60% expats. All in all, children of 36 different nationalities study here,” Towse says, adding that SCIPS is a non-denominational, not-for-profit school.

With colourful back doors, all the rooms lead into a circular outdoor learning space that sports a jungle gym built around two trees. Adam Jones, SCIPS’s Head of Infants, says the area was designed to give students the freedom to explore and interact with their surroundings: “We have a big focus on free flow; the children get a lot of opportunities for long periods of uninterrupted play within an environment where the resources are very clear – children know they can take things out themselves and put them away – and they know that they have adults on hand all the time who can help them if they get stuck. The spaces here are for the children to develop.”

Curriculum-wise, the Early Years programme uses elements of both EYFS and the International Primary Curriculum (IPC). “The IPC curriculum runs throughout the school from nursery to Year Six. In Early Years, we decided that we wanted a bit more freedom, so we only use elements of it. For example, in our topics we have entry points, where there will be a big event or ‘wow moment’ or discovery that starts their journey into that topic, and at the end, we will have an exit point that celebrates all the work done,” Jones says.

St Christopher's International Primary School's Early Years children exploring the environment.

The teachers devise lessons based on observations of the students’ interests. “Lessons are redeveloped every week based on the needs and interests of the children, which change all the time. That being said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of a more traditional approach to kindergarten where the teachers teach lessons. It is important for children to realise that there is a time where they are being taught by a teacher and they are learning as a whole class.”

EYFS uses social and emotional development, communication and language, as well as physical development as a guideline. “We take elements of approaches that work for us and if something else comes out and we think that’s a better way of doing it, we borrow elements from that. We are constantly changing and looking for ways to improve,” says Jones.

“Our main mission is to create a love of learning. If children love learning and love coming to school, then they are going to make progress,” he concludes.



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