What LEHF Hopes to Bring to the GBA


What LEH International School Foshan Hopes to Bring to the Greater Bay Area

Founding headmaster Steve Allen reveals why the British international school chose to open in Foshan and what it will offer

A rendering of the LEH campus in Foshan

Another day, another British international school comes to this part of the world. Lady Eleanor Holles School’s new outpost promises to be different, though. For starters, it is the first LEH school besides the original, which was founded in 1710, and rather than opening in Hong Kong, or even Shenzhen or Guangzhou, it is located in Foshan.

Many international schools with a prestigious name have few concrete links to the original. But as founding headmaster Steve Allen is at pains to point out, “We are not a school with the LEH name, we are a part of LEH.”

Ahead of its official opening in September, Douglas Parkes met Allen to discuss his long career and what LEH Foshan hopes to bring the Greater Bay Area’s crowded marketplace for international education.

Since this is the first overseas location for LEH, why Foshan rather than Hong Kong or Guangzhou?  

There are a number of reasons. Foshan is one of the historic centres of the Greater Bay Area. It’s actually older than Hong Kong in many respects. It’s that sense of tradition that sits well with LEH. There’s a lot of creativity there. It’s one of the homes of Cantonese cuisine, Cantonese opera and ceramic arts. It’s a home of Chinese martial arts – Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher was born there. It’s a city that’s growing, with a population that wants more education. To get the size of campus that we’ve got – 58,000 square metres, which is nearly double the size of Harrow International School Hong Kong, to put it into context – that’s quite special.

Plus there was the question of where is there a need for another international school? There aren’t international schools of quality in that part of Guangdong and therefore it’s also about respecting the local audience. Why put a school in Hong Kong, where there are probably now more school places than there are children? That doesn’t respect the needs of those localities that really need an international school.

A view of Foshan


Do you expect many Hong Kong parents to enrol their children? 

I think there will be parents coming across. Probably, parents with children already going to mainland China for schooling. Then there are parents with businesses in that area who will be comfortable with their children going to school there.


What would be the advantages for Hong Kong parents?  

The thing about Hong Kong parents is that they work incredibly hard and have busy working lives. They often hire helpers who pick up the kids from school, who look after them. So why not do that at a school where the school has the educational professionals helping them with their prep [homework], giving them access to extracurricular activities and avoid your child having to spend an hour each way in traffic, staying on a green site and enjoying all the school facilities? Monday to Friday, quality time for the kids at school; at the weekend, quality time with the family together. That way, the quality of life is better for everyone. That’s my experience of working in boarding schools in the UK and internationally. I think it’s win-win for everyone. It may just take a little explaining to get parents to understand what Foshan is like, because it’s not Shenzhen.


Why is LEH in Foshan co-educational when in the UK it isn’t? 

I think in this part of the world you don’t educate separately. It would be odd to do so. So that decision was about what would be right in this context.


What role does the development of the Greater Bay Area play in your decision to be in Foshan? 

It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s so topical. The reality is that here in Hong Kong, there is going to be a move to normalisation across the border with mainland China, and being ahead of the curve in a city that is a bit more forward-thinking than others in the Greater Bay Area is part of the excitement. You don’t run before you can walk, so being here early is smart.


Where exactly is the school based in Foshan? 

It’s in the centre of Chancheng district. There are five districts in Foshan, Chancheng is the central part, connected to the historical heart of the city and not far from the central business district which is where the likes of Volkswagen are based. Foshan has more hi-tech start-ups than Shenzhen does now. It doesn’t have a Tencent or Huawei but the next ones. That’s the sort of ambition the city has – and we’re in that area.


What facilities can families look forward to?

We will be self-contained in the sense that we have modern flexible classrooms and a full music suite – 15 individual practice rooms, a room for a full orchestra, music classrooms – drama studios, four or five art rooms, science and technology rooms. There’s a sports hall, a 25-metre swimming pool, our own playing field with a 400-metre running track, and there will be four boarding blocks with eight boarding houses. It is a big site. Anything you’d expect from a British independent school you’ll find there. A lot of schools promise these things but don’t deliver. We’ve actually got the space and we are offering it. We won’t quite have the 28-acre site LEH has in England but for the standards of an international school in this part of the world what we’ve got is excellent. We’re nearly double the size of Harrow International School Hong Kong but with half the number of students.


Why does LEH think that now is the time to open abroad? 

It’s not like entertainment, where you can become an overnight star. LEH has been working on this for a long time; three or four years. By the time the school opens it will have been a six- or seven-year piece of work. That’s because it’s been done properly. You can do it far faster if you’re more cavalier about it. Why now? It’s about having found the right partner, the right location – we’ve always wanted to be in China – and opening in 2020 is not about 2020. It’s about laying all the groundwork properly, and that’s the time it has required. And LEH is a big brand in the UK, so there have been a lot of offers and it takes time to sift through them and find the one you want. We want to make a difference in the educational environment and we think we can really do that in Foshan.


Aerial view and rendering of LEH Foshan  


You’ve said that ‘We’re not a school with the LEH name, we’re a part of LEH.’ What does that mean to you? 

Regarding that quote, I’ve spent time researching what LEH is about. They came to me. So we’ve taken time to look at the DNA of LEH and what makes it unique. It’s holistic education, it’s about teaching children to take risks, about not being scared to try something new because it might go wrong. That way you learn independence, you learn resilience, you learn real lessons in life: that communication is important, that cooperation is important. Music, sport, drama, creative arts – they’re all as important as ordinary academics.

In terms of LEH’s 'enhanced British curriculum’, what is it that you're offering? 

In the British curriculum English, Maths and Science are always at the heart of things. What we also want is children to be learning wider subjects that you might not get elsewhere. But it’s also about the whole enrichment. For instance, you can learn about leadership through the house system, the chance to be captain of a sports team or the orchestra, or the chance to mentor a younger student.


Have you encountered any difficulties establishing a school in mainland China?

There are always so many challenges. It doesn’t matter if you’re in mainland China or anywhere else. I think the difference for us is we have the support of the Foshan Education Bureau. They are on our side. So if we run into a roadblock, we have a genuine relationship and we can look to solve things together. That has helped with getting staff visas, getting work permits. And the challenges for new schools are mostly logistical – getting visas, getting things done on time, getting your buses ready, getting approval for government licences. Our China partner has said they’d rather we open when we’re ready rather than rushing to open early. I think that’s unheard of.


What experience do you bring to the role of Head-Master?

I have come through the British system and worked in top schools all my life. I taught in a comprehensive in Cambridge, teaching children of certain university dons. I taught in Hong Kong, then returned to London to teach at one of the most famous girls’ schools in the country. I taught at a boarding school in Sussex. I was a deputy head for 10 years. And for seven years before this I was head of senior school at Shrewsbury in Bangkok. Education is in my DNA. I have great ambitions for children. One thing I don’t tolerate at school is no ambition from the children. We can’t all be academics, we can’t all be brilliant at sports, but we all have a talent. It’s our job as teachers to find that talent and make each child realise that there is something they can achieve.


Author : Douglas Parkes 

Source : South China Morning Post 


  • LEH Foshan
Teacher and Students