Jena Ntumba, a young business management lecturer, was looking for a pre-school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg but couldn’t find one suitable for her three-year-old daughter. She was determined to find a pre-school with the right balance between education and care, and an emphasis on building confidence and creativity in children. “Some were academic, but I didn’t want a primary school for my preschooler. Others were little more than day-care centres. Some were great, but the facilities were shocking, with no investment in toys and material,” she says.
Ntumba knew what she wanted as a mother, and she knew business. She converted a room in her house in Saxonwold, recruited a teacher and an assistant and started the Little Ashford Preschool with her daughter and the neighbours’ two children. The start-up finance was her salary from her University of Johannesburg lecturer job which she continued doing until the school operation grew too big.
Today, five years later, the Little Ashford Company has four schools, almost 300 children from the ages of four months to five years, 60 staff members and a reputation growing as fast as its waiting list.
Ntumba’s emphasis on quality education and innovation in Little Ashford was cemented when the third teacher whom she recruited was Marli Hoffman, a young live wire with a marketing degree, a background in Montessori teaching and a passion for children. Among many other experiences, Hoffman had spent a year as a volunteer at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital taking care of abandoned children who were dying of Aids, while waitering at night to pay the rent. It was the most fulfilling year of her life, she says.
Hoffman’s arrival at Little Ashford was a great meeting of minds. “It was so liberating to find someone who understands the ideas for my school. She also had a big vision, she could critically think through a process with me and we could find solutions together,” says Ntumba.
It didn’t take long for Hoffman to move from teacher, to principal, to director and co-owner of Little Ashford, which became the first pre-primary schools in Africa to introduce iPads into their teaching.
The innovative use of technology does not replace the traditional aspects of pre-school education – playing, running, climbing, drawing, painting, books and having fun are still all there, says Hoffman. Rather, the aim is to enhance traditional early education, and to prepare the children for a changing world.