Interview with Amaury de Saint-Blanquat, EFI co-founder and administrator
Why did you decide to create the French International School in Phnom Penh?
When I first embarked on this project, there was no school program aligned with the expectations of the French-speaking expatriate families in the country. Many of them want their children to be proficient both in French and English, which means that a bilingual education should be provided by native speakers. Until now, such an option was not yet available in Phnom Penh.
In addition, these families are bicultural and are looking for moreinnovative education opportunities, meeting their children’s everyday needs. Our school is there to complement existing educational opportunities.
How innovative is the EFI?
The EFI education is based on internationally recognized pedagogical approaches. Our educational team was inspired by the best existing school systems to develop a quality bilingual education program. While itstill follows the French national school program, we made sure it is also adapted to the international context. It is a matter of respecting the individualities of our students, and providing them with the means to adapt.
This notion seems to be very important for you. Is that right?
Yes, it is. I was a dyslexic kid, and my three children are so too. At school, I have experienced and realized how much the French education systemis beneficial tothe students who fit into it, and how much difficulty it was to adapt to students with specificities. But we all have different waysof learning, and rejectingthese specificities can be disruptive for some children. I believe there is definitely room for improvement, by making it more flexible. This is especially the case whena French school is established abroad, to meet the needs of those living in an intercultural context.
When living abroad, parents also seem to have different expectations…
Yes, it is true. It is also worth emphasizing that placing children in school aboard can be costly compared to the Frencheducation system. This tends to create high hopes among the parents, who feel entitled todreamabout a school where thepedagogical methods are innovative and the particularities of their children are taken into account. We believe it can be done, especiallywith a manageable class size.
How could this project become a reality?
The EFI was made possible thanks to a discussion with the Canadian International School (CIS), in which I shared my plans to establish a French international school in Phnom Penh. Their enthusiasm exceeded my expectations! The CIS management team came on boardright awayand they even offered to host the school on their very modern campuses. They areequipped with high quality facilities, located in the heart of the city. For me, it is a great opportunity to carry out a project that I had been thinking about for a long time.
In fact, I was in charge of the Parents Association of the French Lycée Descartes in Phnom Penh from 2010 to 2012. I was de facto the Chairman of its Board, and this is how I became familiar with the French education system. This greatexperience enabled me to understand the internal workings of a French school abroad. What works and what doesn’t also became very clear. With EFI, I am eager to apply the lessons I could draw from this two-year-commitment and first-hand experience.
Does CIS do more than hosting you?
Yes. Besides hosting us, CIS provides English-speaking teachers and is mentoring us in this adventure. Our collaboration started off very well, specifically thanks to the professionalism of Christine Bzdel, the Director of CIS. She understood the broad meaning of this partnership and fully supports us. We are very fortunate to have her on board.
Which education system does EFI follow?
Our school program is in line with the requirements of the French Ministry of Education. Our primary target is thus the French-speaking community. We want to ensure the students have continuity in the school programs, so that, ultimately, they will be able to enter a French school in another country or to go back to school in French territory if they wish to do so. But even if we do follow the guidelines of the French Ministry of Education, we do adapt them to the special contexts of expatriation and multiculturalism.
Will the EFI be opened in January 2016?
Yes. We will launch a kindergarten pilot class on 18 January 2016. It is obviously opening during the school year, but we did not feel the need to wait longer. It is important to for to assess our partnership with CIS before opening it to higher education levels in September 2016. We first want to limit the sizes of the classes, to focus our efforts on the implementation of our program. We hired our own teaching staff for the French-speaking part, and CIS is providing native English speaker teachers for the English-teaching part of the program.
Can you please give examples of the equipment and facilities EFI is benefiting from?
Thanks to our partnership with CIS, we are benefiting from the facilities of two brand new campuses: the preschool campus is located at Bassac Garden City, and the elementary school campus at Koh Pich. Both campuses are located close to each other and equipped with indoor and outdoor sports facilities, with a play and pool area designed according to the needs of the youngest ones. There is also a large and playful library, as well as computer rooms. The school’s buildings are spacious, comfortable, welcoming and quiet, creating an exceptionallearning environment. Parents are of course invited to attend regular tours of the campuses, and those who did it already weremuch impressed.
What is to be expected for September 2016?
We received urgent requests to open classes from preschool to the 9th grade. We hope to launch an early bird registration soon. It will help us to quickly assess which classes should be opened in September 2016. Each year we will add new grades, as our studentsmove up to higher classes. CIS is starting to build a junior high and high school on their campus at Koh Pich. Facilities will be ready to welcome and accompany the students, whom, we hope, will study until their high school diploma.
Is this project really realistic?
It is, of course, an ambitious project. But isn’t ambition essential to offer the best to our children?We have to deal with many challenges in various areas such as education, budget, logistics etc. But we are fortunate to have a very competent and committed team to meet them. We are thereforeall set to complete this project. We plan to open classes every year until EFI covers the entire school cycle – from preschool to Grade 12. We are ready to create the education many French-speaking families living in Cambodia are dreaming of for their children.
What do parents think of this project?
I have been very positively surprised. The creation of EFI is definitely raising expectations among parents. Although we did not go public about the project, we already received many requests andparents show their interest in our alternative education. Some of them do not want to cut all ties with the French education system but, in the meantime, want the English-speaking education to play an important part in class. Of course, their expectations are not limited to bilingualism. And to meet those expectations, we will seek to offer much more: small sized classes, a stimulating multicultural environment, inclusive education… and high quality campuses, perfectly equipped, situated in a pleasant and friendly location.