The booming economy in Macau is proving a magnet for expatriates, but for those with children, the availability of suitable school places is a key consideration. As a sleepy Portuguese colonial backwater, the enclave's education system evolved as a patchwork of schools following Chinese, Portuguese and British models. The Macau government has embarked on an ambitious programme to extend universal free education to all kindergarten children and senior secondary students but there are few offerings for foreign students. Most schools are private but form part of a network serving local students who receive education subsidies and only 12 use English as the medium of instruction. Thousands of people were recruited to work in Macau as the casino boom took off last year and GDP soared by 16.6 per cent, following a 6.9 per cent rise in 2005. Only 4,058 babies were born in 2006, yet the population rose 29,150. The Hong Kong-based Galaxy Entertainment Group entered Macau's liberalised casino market with the launch of the Waldo casino in 2005 bringing many overseas staff with it. Investor relations manager Summy Chu said: 'Nearly half of our employees are English-speaking expatriates and most of the management team are from Australia. 'In 2005, we had 2,000 staff, both local and expat, in Hong Kong and Macau and just one casino. In 2006, we opened four casinos, the Rio, the President, Starworld and the Grand Waldo. By the end of 2006, our staff had grown to 8,000. 'Some of our expats are senior managers and because they don't have children with them, their terms may not include school fees. 'But some managers coming from Australia have young kids and school fees could be provided as part of negotiated terms.' When the US$1.2 billion Wynn Macau opened in September last year, it had 5,000 staff of whom 10 per cent were managers and 17 per cent were expatriates. The casino is aiming to take on a further 2,000 new recruits - and create 7 per cent more managerial posts - by the end of this year when its expansion phase begins. Until recently, the main schools serving international students were the Macau Portuguese School, which teaches in Portuguese, the small School of the Nations, set up in 1988 by members of the Baha'i faith and the Sheng Kung Hui Primary School. But after the handover, two former leaders of Hong Kong's Canadian International School, John Crawford and Neil Johnston, set out to expand the provision of English-medium international education in the enclave. They forged a relationship with Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST), won a land grant from the government and in 2002 launched The International School of Macau (TIS) in temporary premises in Taipa with 58 students. Mr Johnston, a former Canadian International School principal who is governor of the new school, said: 'The casino licences had already been awarded in 2002 and we knew there was going to be rapid growth. 'We also knew that the American casinos were going to be bringing staff from the US, Australia and other parts of the world. In the very first year, one of the senior people from Sands came out specially to look at the school before he accepted the job.' When the school moved into a state-of-the-art new building with room for 900 students on the MUST campus in September last year, numbers had already risen to 525 and more students are joining every month. Vice-principal Howard Stribbell said: 'We will exceed 600 by the time the school year has ended. Every day I am getting e-mails from all over the world. On average, there are seven to 10 enquiries per week from parents who have got jobs in Macau or are in the process of applying for jobs. 'They are very interested in a Western-style school in Macau and aren't willing to relocate their families unless they are assured there is a Western education available.' Work on the phase two building in the adjoining lot, which will add another 600 places and provide a dedicated secondary department, is expected to begin in about two years. Mr Johnston said: 'Last year we had a growth rate of more than 25 per cent and we expect that to continue for at least four to five years until the school is full. We have 31 nationalities. 'We took the step in 2006 of opening up additional classes in Grades Six, Seven and Eight. These classes weren't even close to being full but we knew we had to do that in order to create space for families arriving with children of all ages. 'That meant in effect creating our own growth plan. We are looking to have classes that will not exceed 25 students and an adult-to-student ratio of 1:11.' The school offers the Alberta, Canada, curriculum, which achieves the second highest scores in the world in the Programme for International Student Assessment for maths and reading - after Hong Kong and Finland respectively - and fourth highest in science. Most teachers are Canadian but the curriculum is adapted to the Macanese context and Putonghua is compulsory up to grade nine and taken voluntarily by all students in grade 10. Students work towards the Alberta Grade 12 diploma and MUST and school managers are forging links with universities in Australia and Canada to help familiarise TIS with admissions officers. 'The vision of the school is that our graduates should be able to gain acceptance in any university that uses English as the teaching medium,' said Mr Johnston. 'We want to be like the Canadian International School in Hong Kong and have our students really sought after by the universities around the world.' Romy So, whose 12-year-old son Alex Lam attends the school, said: 'My husband came here first to teach at Macau University. But because there was no good international school, my son and I stayed behind in Victoria, British Columbia. 'We were separated for a year but it was quite unbearable. My husband wooed me to Macau by telling me that there was going to be an international school and we came the following year.' Alex attended another school for the first year until the International School of Macau opened, when they were among the first 55 families to enrol. 'It suited us very well because they are offering a Canadian curriculum and all the teachers are from Canada.' Donagh Marr, president of the parent's association, who has three children at the school, said: 'Every year, I get friends calling from Canada trying to get information from me because their husbands or wives have got a job here and they want to move their families over. 'Parents are very interested in getting the information before they come to Macau. We have opened up our own website attached to the TIS website to keep parents informed about what goes on here. 'We are preparing a parent pack that covers living in Macau, after-school activities, school transport and everything you need to know about the school.' The School of the Nations also has bold expansion plans. Currently based in central Macau, it was granted a site by the government last year and building work begins this month on a new campus in Taipa. The new building, scheduled to open in August next year, will accommodate about 690 students - there are 240 now - and a new secondary six-year group that will complete the senior secondary department. The school, which offers International GCSEs in Form Four, is seeking accreditation to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma in Forms Five and Six. But educational administrator Vivek Nair said the expansion plans were not a direct response to the new expatriates coming into Macau. 'Our focus will continue to be the needs of the Macau community as a whole,' he said. 'The character of Macau is changing. It is becoming a much more cosmopolitan city and parents are insisting on a good all-round English education. 'At this stage we are a very small school and our facilities do not really allow us to expand, so we haven't really seen the expat demand directly. 'But we expect that to change once we have the facilities in the new building. And I think the demand from expatriates is growing. 'However, we will not give any preference on way or the other to expat or local students. Any student who applies will be judged on their merit.' The Macau government's education and youth affairs bureau offers a school search service for parents looking for a place for their child, including expatriates who have secured a job in Macau and a visa of at least three months. Industry insiders are predicting a second big wave of expatriate recruitment as giant resorts under construction - including the Venetian, City of Dreams and Galaxy Cotai Mega Resort - open their doors, and some say more international school places will be required. Galaxy's Ms Chu said: 'Additional school places will be in big demand in one or two years' time. I expect we will see a sharp rise as the Galaxy Mega Resort and several other major casino resorts come on stream. 'Galaxy has the largest land bank on the Cotai Strip and we want to develop a resort with a real mass-market appeal. That's why we need a lot of expats to come and work for us and plan and manage this huge resort. We will need another 5,000 to 6,000 additional staff for phase one.' TIS is planning for an intake in September that would increase its roll to 750 students and recruited 16 new teachers from Canada in February to lead additional classes. The total capacity when phase two is completed will be 1,500. Mr Johnston said: 'We believe that we can meet demand here for quite some time to come. But we probably will need more international school places in Macau although it is hard to say when and exactly how many.' Andrea Mansfield, vice-president of the TIS parents' association said: 'I don't believe the expansion plans will provide enough place for all the expat families that will be coming to Macau over the next few years. 'The Venetian is bringing 300 level one managers from Australia, Hong Kong and the US next month. These people alone could bring scores of additional children with them and we expect similar recruitment drives by other casinos over coming months. 'Building should be happening now to cope with the expected influx of people. And the government should offer incentives to encourage other international schools.'