International school ‘facing crisis’ in catering to Hong Kong’s expanding French community

Application handed in for government site as growing French population creates 'crisis'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:13pm

The French International School has applied to open a new campus at a government site in Kowloon as it nears a crisis point in its efforts to provide enough places for the fast-growing French community in Hong Kong.

The number of French nationals aged under six on consulate records has hit 1,500, half as much again as the capacity of the school's French primary section, says principal Christian Soulard.

"We are facing a crisis," he says. "The growth of the French population is just a matter of fact, which means we're having this problem of the increase of the number of students."

He says the school, the only French school in Hong Kong, has applied for one of five sites put forward by the government in March for international school development, although he declined to identify which one.

The sites include two empty schools: in the Ap Lei Chau Estate and on Ma Chung Road, Tai Po; and three greenfield sites, two in Tseung Kwan O and one near Tai Po's Science Park.

Soulard says the school needs a campus on the Kowloon peninsula because some 30 per cent of the community's population live in the New Territories.

Its current campuses - three primary schools in Chai Wan, Sheung Wan and Jardine's Lookout and a secondary school in Happy Valley - are all on Hong Kong Island. Together they cater for 2,600 pupils. It also runs two kindergartens.

There are about 11,200 French nationals on the consulate's records and the numbers have risen by about 10 per cent a year. Many, however, do not register.

Alexandra Malandain-Leckie, president of Hong Kong's overseas French association L'Union des Français de l'Étranger, says the city is one of the favourite destinations for young people who find it difficult to get a job in France due to the high unemployment rate. There are 800 French companies employing 30,000 staff, generating around €8 billion (HK$84 billion) a year.

"It's true that every year [the school] struggled [to accommodate more children], but every year they managed," says Malandain-Leckie. "Basically it's a space problem. Hong Kong is an expensive city."

Laurent de Meyere, executive director of the school, says it is impossible to buy or rent a site for expansion because of high land prices and sky-high rents.

De Meyere says the school had to relocate children in one of its kindergartens in Sheung Wan to another campus in Tai Hang after the landlord increased the rent by 70 per cent.

"And [the landlord] is a non-profit organisation. Don't ask me," he says.

Anne Denis-Blanchardon, the French Consul of Culture, Education and Science, says the consulate maintains a close relationship with the school and has written a letter of support for the application, together with letters from consulates of French-speaking countries, the French Chamber of Commerce and the European Chamber of Commerce.

"We are very hopeful, because we have very good relations with the Education Bureau," she says. "FIS shows openness to other communities beyond the French community, and I think this is very much appreciated by the bureau." The school, whose fees are at the lower end of international school rates, reserves 25 per cent of places for non-French children.