GESS 50 – Barbara Beckhaus – First Principal

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Please introduce yourself to our GESS community.

I am Barbara Beckhaus. From the beginning of 1972 until spring of 1975, I, together with an American teacher, Mrs. Ramona Smith, designed the teaching framework and developed the methodological and didactic concept of the newly founded German School Singapore. From February 1973, I was officially the first principal of the German School Singapore. After just three years, I and my team of teachers succeeded in getting the school officially recognised as a German School Abroad by the German government and the Conference of Ministers of Education of the German states.

What brought you to Singapore at that time?

In August 1971, my husband was offered the opportunity to become the Technical Director and Managing Director at the Singaporean branch of the German company he was working for. At the same time, there were serious efforts to establish a German school in Singapore. German teachers were not yet living in Singapore at that time. So, I was asked whether I would be interested in teaching at the school and in helping to develop the school’s methodological and didactic concept. I spontaneously agreed and was very much looking forward to the tasks that awaited me.

What was the situation like in Singapore in 1972?

The Singapore of that time was not comparable with present day Singapore in almost every aspect. In 1972, Singapore had only been an independent city-state for seven years. It was still counted among the developing countries and still belonged to the “tariff preference system for developing countries” of the then European Economic Community. In those years of change, hardly anyone thought that Singapore would one day become an internationally important financial, industrial and scientific centre. The government of Lee Kuan Yew, however, was already working hard at, and also very successful in, attracting foreign investors, including from Germany, to the island state. And this soon made it necessary to establish a German school.

What schooling options were there for students from Germany at that time?

German children in Singapore could be admitted to the Swiss School till January 1971. At the end of 1970, the Swiss School had more than 80 German students and it decided it could no longer accept any more German students due to capacity limits. This made it urgently necessary to establish a school for the German community in Singapore which was growing steadily. The branch of the company, where my husband worked, alone intended to send many German families with school-age children to Singapore. And so, it was no surprise that the first president of the German School Singapore Association was my husband’s colleague. And the treasurer of the German School Association for many years was the chief financial officer of this very company.

So how was the first German school established?

The children of a German manager at an American company were particularly affected by the sudden news that the Swiss school was no longer an option for German children. This manager, therefore, hired an American teacher, Ms. Ramona Smith, who was fluent in German to teach his children. From about August 1971, Ms. Smith started tutoring the other children of German families in the private home of one of these families, on behalf of the German School Association. She was informed about my imminent arrival in Singapore in the first week of January 1972 and eagerly awaited my support.

However, I was pregnant at that time and wanted to wait until after my son was born before I started work. But then everything turned out quite differently.

We were still staying at the Oberoi Imperial Hotel on River Valley Road when Mrs. Smith came to see me and asked for my assistance. She had to write report cards for seven students she was teaching in January 1972. She was interested to learn from me about how such things are formulated in Germany. She also asked me to look at the students’ performance in detail, in order to work out a fair assessment according to German standards.

Following the long discussions I had with Ms. Ramona Smith, and after I learned about the number of children enrolled in the upcoming preschool and kindergarten years, the ongoing preparation to move into a small school building on Jalan Kampong Chantek as soon as it was ready for occupancy, I decided to start teaching immediately after the opening of this first school building in February 1972. Ms. Ramona Smith could not do it alone. We immediately decided to schedule the summer vacation so that as little teaching time as possible would be lost due to the expected birth of my second child.

Where was the first school building and what were the conditions like?

Our first school building was actually a residential house in Jalan Kampong Chantek, and it was furnished for our purposes. However, it was not quite what we were used to in Germany. One could not simply look for a company that could offer school furniture, blackboards and whatever else was needed in a school and was able to deliver at short notice. Instead, everything had to be made by local craftsmen according to the specifications of the school association. The craftsmanship was very good, but required a longer procurement period. Ms. Smith was able to move into one of the rooms for classes with her existing students as early as the second week of January, but the final completion dragged on until 21 February. On that day, I also began teaching at the German School.

How many students did the school have at the beginning?

I can’t remember exactly how many students, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners were already there at the very beginning when we moved into Jalan Kampong Chantek, at the end of February 1972. Half a year later, in the fall of 1972, there were, according to my memory, about 40 children and it was already foreseeable that the rooms in this first school building would be too small a few months later. This had to be remedied urgently and a new place had to be found. This was soon accomplished and six months later, on 24 February 1973, we were able to move into a much larger, older colonial-style house on Chatsworth Road, which had been renovated after careful planning by the building committee of the German School Society in cooperation with a local architectural firm. Additionally, a pavilion with two more spacious classrooms were built on the large property of the house. At the time of the move, the number of children in grades 1 to 4, as well as preschool and kindergarten, had increased to about 70.

What were the big challenges back then?

At first, the biggest challenge for us, i.e., for Ms. Ramona Smith and me, was that everything was new to us. We were the only ones available to teach school-aged and preschool children and organise the care of the kindergarten children. It was not until July 1972 that we were joined by a specialist teacher for sport and handicrafts, Mrs. Fredrich, and from December 1972 we received a particularly important reinforcement for the rapidly growing kindergarten in the form of the local kindergarten teacher Mrs. Sim. Another trained teacher for elementary, secondary and high school, Mrs. Radke, joined our small team in March 1973, and in the same year another specialist teacher for music, Mrs. Pachali, and the German kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Weber, were added. It was not until 1974 that we received a particularly valuable addition in the form of the high school teacher Dr. Ines von Uexküll, who continued to lead our joint development work as deputy principal in the first years after the school’s state recognition, when a principal assigned by the federal government took over pedagogical responsibility.

But in the early days, it was particularly challenging for Ms. Ramona Smith and me to figure out for ourselves what was expected of us and what we had to accomplish if we wanted to achieve the ambitious goal of being recognised as a German school abroad in the shortest possible time. We were both teachers who had sufficient experience in teaching school children, but we were completely inexperienced in how to develop a pedagogical and didactic concept for a school abroad. Fortunately, we found excellent support from the German Embassy. We had to obtain and study the curricula of all the German states so that we could design our lesson plans in such a way that students returning to Germany could transition into any of the different German state school systems without any problems. Textbooks had to be procured from Germany, and the textbooks recommended in all the German states also had to be adequately considered.

Here you can watch a video of our conversation with Ms. Beckhaus

How was the school funded?

I didn’t have to worry about that in detail; that was the business of the treasurer of the German School Association. But I know that the most important source of funding was the school fees, and this was probably mostly borne by the companies where the fathers of our children were employed. I also remember that the German Ambassador, Dr. Löhr, once told me that the German government also provided a considerable amount in the early years. In addition, there were of course donations from German companies and banks in Singapore and from private individuals.

What are your fond memories of those formative years?

The whole of Singapore was characterised by a tremendous pioneering spirit during the years when I was able to live and work there. And that also applied to the German community, from which we received all the support we needed at the school.

I remember whenever we wanted to go on school trips, for example to the zoo or bird park or to Changi Beach with the kindergarten students, volunteers were always on hand immediately.

When we – I think it was 1973 or 74 – wanted to take part in the German-style Federal Youth Games, volunteers from the parent body immediately offered to take over the whole organisation and to also act as judges.

When the move to the second school building on Chatsworth Road was imminent, the parents arrived, armed with paint pots and brushes, brooms, scrubbers and buckets. Parents, teachers, and volunteers from the school association brushed and scrubbed for our school children. And for the inauguration, everyone came dressed in a gala costume, with the German ambassador leading the way. And there was also something to drink.

Among my fondest memories, however, is the day in the spring of 1975 when the message arrived that we had now officially become an approved German School Abroad. We had passed the examinations by the Federal Government and by the Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Federal States. We had even been given special praise in the letter of recognition. My family of four was already busy with the preparations for our return to Germany and I had not expected the good news to reach me before our departure. But that was really the most beautiful conclusion to our almost three and a half years of life in Singapore.

As far as my private memories are concerned, the birth of my second child, our son Hendrik, who is still happy about his Singapore Birth Certificate, was of course the most defining experience. But also, the time before and after, when I took my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to school every day, is unforgettable. Pregnant and holding my little Anja’s hand, I took the bus to school, of course without an aircon, which didn’t exist back then. Anja always sat on the floor at the front of the classroom and played, while her mother taught. That’s probably why Anja later became a teacher herself. After Hendrik was born, I drove to school with Anja in my Mini Morris, of course without aircon, but that was already a relief.

Today, at the age of over 80, I am particularly pleased that after such a long time we still have many dear friends in Singapore, most of them from my husband’s former circle of associates, some of whom also visit us here in Germany from time to time.

Have you been to Singapore since then?

Yes, we were in Singapore four more times. My husband and I then always took the opportunity to also meet Dieter Gumpert, who then showed us how “our” school has grown. We made our last visit in 2018 and took part in the celebrations for the inauguration of the new campus of GESS, to which then principal, Mr. Zänglein, had very kindly invited us. With great astonishment, and just as much joy and satisfaction, we were able to witness how the school had gone from its small beginnings in the early 70s of the last century to become the largest German school abroad in Asia.

And this now prompts me to extend my warmest greetings and congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to achieve this success, on the 50th anniversary of the German European School Singapore. And if I may add: I am very happy to have been there from the very beginning.

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