Pre-school brand now spreading to China

Last updated 05:00 18/02/2013
BIG HORIZONS: Little School founder Maria Johnson has now taken the childhood education brand to China, where a school will be open by August, and is eyeing the Middle East.

BIG HORIZONS: Little School founder Maria Johnson has now taken the childhood education brand to China, where a school will be open by August, and is eyeing the Middle East.

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Mother of four Maria Johnson's early childhood education brand Little School, which she started in Wellington 10 years ago, is about to launch in China.

The trained teacher first came up with the concept for a New Zealand pre-school with a holistic educational, social and emotional growth programme for youngsters when she was living in Sydney.

Her youngest children, among them twins, went to an early childhood school that she was extremely impressed with.

When she and husband Craig moved back to Wellington, she found from talking to other parents in the Khandallah community that there was a need for a pre-school education with more of a focus on reading, writing and mathematics.

"We do have quite a structured programme, so we are very different. Every child has individual goals, the programme is very much prepared to advance children.

"We look at the holistic approach of the child and move them developmentally through those stages of their lives," said Johnson, who is president of the Early Childhood Council.

"Most of our children, unless there are developmental issues or speech and language issues, would go through to school already reading and writing so they start in school achieving quite well."

The first Little School opened in Khandallah in 2003 and quickly built up a waiting list from keen parents. The following year she opened a second branch at Churton Park, soon followed by a third in Kelburn. Late last year, the first Little School opened in Auckland.

It costs about $1.5 million to set up each school, including buying the property, renovating and outfitting it for the educational needs.

"We challenge the children to think at a deeper level, which is obviously quite different to a lot of other pre-schools. In a competitive market, it is important to keep your point of difference."

By August, the first Little School will be open in China following a joint venture with the Binhu Educational Bureau. Typically, Chinese pre-schools already had an academic focus but used rote learning.

"There is an awful lot of pressure at a very young age. Little School's philosophy is to empower children's minds to engage a love of learning for a lifetime so they actually enjoy learning, it is not pressure-based learning.

"They learn through their interests and strengths along with learning through play and developing children's creative and musical skills in a more natural environment."

The Chinese venture is not the first time Johnson has looked at taking the brand to Asia. A couple of years ago the Singapore Principal's Academy, which works with the government, looked to New Zealand for ways to update its education system.

The approach was the first time Johnson realised she had an exportable brand, but due to the higher costs of property and living in Singapore, she decided it would take too long to break even there. She is now thinking about taking the concept to the Middle East.

"One step at a time, my husband keeps telling me - China is big enough."

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