Astor International School: Small School, Big Impact

A first-time education entrepreneur and a first-time School Principal have come together to change the face of International Schools in Singapore.

Astor International School: Small School, Big Impact

The Beginning

“My daughter turned five and I started looking for an international primary school for her in Singapore. I just couldn’t get excited about what I saw. I wanted something better for her. Then one day I decided to do it myself.”

Elena Holloway, the founder and director of Astor International School, had never been an education entrepreneur before starting Razum International School (as it was then called) in 2019. But she had two young children and had worked for 15 years in business. She had a vision for how she wanted a school to be: a smaller school that didn’t charge too much; a cohesive, inclusive and nurturing school environment; a school that would create a community which would welcome parents and students alike.

In August 2019, the school opened the doors of its Tanglin campus to 10 students. From the beginning, Elena was careful to make sure that her new venture embodied some core features: flexibility for parents to choose specialists subjects (enrichment classes); fees starting from SGD14,900 a year; the option for a school day that finished at 1.30 pm. And a holistic approach that did not just emphasise academic excellence. It was a principle embedded in the school’s first name.

The word Razum is a transliteration of the Russian word meaning “mind.” And it functioned for Elena as a motivating force for the school: To nurture young minds. To build independence. To embrace inquiry-based learning. To develop students into well-rounded international citizens, equipped to function effectively in modern society.

Early Days

But the school’s early days demonstrated the challenges that come with almost any entrepreneurial journey – the difficulties of leasing premises; the challenges of persuading those first customers to come on a journey with you; the staff turnover that most new companies experience. And then along came Covid-19.

“We had worked hard to set up as a classroom school. Then, in the space of four days, we had to completely retool ourselves for virtual delivery because of the pandemic,” Elena Holloway says. “There were times when I thought we just couldn’t make it.”

But the school did make it. And they were helped in this process when Shannon de Winnaar became the school’s principal in January 2020.

Shannon de Winnaar - Principal - Astor International SchoolShannon, a South African-Australian originally from Perth, had years of experience as a teacher – in Australia, UK and Singapore – but had never been a school principal before.

“It was both scary and enlivening,” Shannon says. “Especially during the early days of Covid, everything was difficult, and I was on my own steep learning curve. But I never really doubted that we would get through it all.”

And they did.

Shannon and Elena have formed a formidable partnership. Razum finished the 2019-20 academic year with 30 students. Now, in the 2023-24 academic year, the school is home to 110 students. It has expanded and developed with a custom-built playground and 25 enrichment classes. And now the school is named Astor International School, following a careful rebranding undertaken in 2022.

Breakthrough Year 

But 2023 has been Astor’s breakthrough year – the year when all the hard work really seemed to pay off. And it’s bought two other developments which have surprised and delighted the leaders of Astor.

First, in November, Shannon was named the gold winner of Principal of the Year award by HoneyKids Asia in the competitive International Primary School category (featuring many much larger schools).

And in December, Elena was named Entrepreneur of the Year, 2023,” as part of the prestigious Entrepreneur 100 Award by the Association of Trade and Commerce Singapore.

Whilst they are proud of their awards, both Shannon and Elena agree that it is not about them.

“Although I do think Shannon and I have been very effective as a leadership team, accolades like this come not because we are good. It’s because the people around us are good. Our students, our teachers, our parents, our partners and the whole community. These awards belong to them,” says Elena.

Shannon agreed. “They shine back on us. And now I am more motivated than ever to give back to this community in 2024.”

As 2023 ends and 2024 begins, Astor looks forward to its continuing journey. As in the case of all young companies, there is talk of growth and development. But both Shannon and Elena are clear: the success of the school’s first four years has come from vision, persistence and commitment to key tenets. More of this will follow. Astor was built as a smaller, better alternative to the enormous and expensive international schools that abound in Singapore. Other things might change, but that probably will stay the same.

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