Founded by 3 returned UK scholars: Tony Tan, Hazel Poa and Vincent Lee in 1999, SmartLab Education Centre started off as a humble set up with a rented classroom in a Civil Defence Shelter in Bishan providing mathematics and science tutorial classes. It was both a humbling and challenging experience. We not only had to clear the bins, clean up the room and take phone enquiries, we had to develop the notes from scratch, teach and conduct business planning and development. Then when we started, the private education market was crowded with established players offering tuition programmes to large class size and respected individuals giving home tuition.

We identified that there was a gap in the private education market. The provision of personalized quality tutorial classes to small class size of 8-10 students where teachers can provide the individualized attention to the learners, and at the same time engage the learners to interact, compete and learn from each other. There was a lack of education centres that fully harness the use of Information Technology for education and the build up of knowledge capital.

With the initial vision to make the centre different, we developed all the notes in house, were the early adopters of Information Technology by equipping the classroom with computer, and were the first to conduct laboratories as part of activity based learning. We also laboriously collected and tabulated all the results of our students for the major examinations, and commenced formulating and developing our e-learning software.

After years of experimentation and practice-based learning on pedagogy, we embedded the Montessori step-by-step approach of progressive learning and teaching, the Kumon patient approach of repetitive doing and experimentation by the learners, and the Waldorf holistic approach of listening and teaching the learners based on their thinking, and interests (feeling), and how they can be best engaged to make them willing learners.

We did not choose the more profitable approach of enlarging the class size as we believe that the only way we can seriously make a difference to the students is by keeping the class size small to maximize the interactions between teachers and students, and to allow teachers to understand learners as well as they can. Teacher must act as role model leading the learning sessions and working with students areas where they are weak at.

In 2002, we realized the importance of building the confidence of the students, and found that to be the key to best help and develop our students. The most knowledgeable teacher would not be able to effectively share and make a difference to an unwilling student. We believe that the most important factor is to befriend the students, build their self-confidence, believe in them, mentally gear and condition them for learning, and to run with them and cheer them on. In 2003, we made plans to expand and to commence our branding efforts. Our focus on curriculum and branding have paid off allowing us to win the Spirit of Enterprise Award in 2006 and Singapore Prestige Brand Award in 2007. From late 2008, we have been studying on Franchising and Licensing business model for international expansion.

Currently, SmartLab Education Private School is a member of the Franchising and Licensing Association and has applied to join the Association of Private Schools and Colleges.

Developing Our Private School

In Dec 2006, under the request of 2 parents, we started to take in full time students. Students attend our mix of full time classes and tutorial classes and sit for Preparatory Course For Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) Examination in 2007. The outcome was encouraging as we prove to be able to make a difference to the students’ results. It was like laying the foundation and acquiring the experience to run full time Preparatory Course For Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) Examination classes. We learnt how to manage the full time students.

In 2008, with more parental requests, we started a full time class providing a full suite of Preparatory Course For Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) Examination subjects in the newly located Farrer Park branch. We piloted a class of Sec 4 GCE O level classes and intend to build the various components that can enable our core belief and allow us to value add to our students. In the same year, we work to professionally associate ourselves with CASETRUST while working on developing a quality learning programmes for GCE O level students that focus on knowledge acquisition and application, and confidence building. Reflecting on the experience, it was about developing the curriculum. But above all, it was to assemble a management team to incubate a suitable culture for teachers and students that best represents our core belief – “Believe in Yourself”.

In 2009, we still felt that we may not be ready to promote ourselves internationally, as more work would need to be done to improve ourselves to meet the requirements of Singapore Quality Class (SQC) – Private Education Organisation. One of our key staff members attended a SQC course and was charged to prepare for SQC. Instead, we operated with only 2 classes: 1-year and 2-year Preparatory Course For Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) Examination courses to develop the full curriculum. We accepted our first international students. We put in place numerous systems in 2009 to best help our students – introduction of After Assessment Review, focus on marking scheme and conduct of free tutorial classes. We had better the academic results of students relative to last year. In the same year, the announcement of Edutrust though swings us off track from SQC, allows us to focus our energies on numerous right focus areas. Numerous of our preparations on SQC helped. Edutrust could not have been better as it guides us to further improve our operating system and curriculum. It is a learning journey and a challenge similar to our branding efforts that started in 2003.

Although our revenue may be lackluster, it must be understood that we had not marketed our programme aggressively, as we believe we need time and greater attention to build the best quality learning programme before embarking on international marketing. So 2009 was a year of Edutrust preparation and a learning journey towards excellence and quality for SmartLab Education Private School.

Current information and preliminary feedback in 2010 we are obtaining indicate that the teaching system is in place with the right culture and learning atmosphere to provide a good value add to our students, regardless whether they are weak or bright. Our learning support programme and emphasis on bond building are paying ‘dividends’. Students are forthcoming in feedback and initial Meet-the-Parent Session was a rewarding and positive experience, unlike the year before. Parents and students are happy with the online weekly attendance record being emailed and the Local Study Award, which we are extremely grateful, had helped to convert the less interested and boost the interested.

2010/11 would see us focus on international branding and marketing. This year alone SmartLab Education Private School would participate in at least 5 trade shows. We had already completed 2 as we lodge in our Edutrust submission. Our international licensing efforts to transfer teaching system and enable marketing plans are allowing SmartLab Education Private School to gain entry into Vietnam, Indonesia and China. We would leverage on these strength and synergise them with the Private School. We believe we are ready to take on the international students and provide them an education that epitomizes the quality Singapore education and experience that had helped groomed many Singaporeans and Asians.

This journey towards attainment of Edutrust award has truly benefitted the company as a whole. We have built stronger system, improved procedures and more importantly a stronger team. For SmartLab Education Private School, the process is definitely more important than the outcome. Whatever the grading, we are indeed thankful for the assistance from CPE and the continued support of our parents, students and teachers.