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EL Rankings 2016: ELT takes the London Challenge

Melanie Butler applies a state-school improvement maxim to English language teaching and finds that it works there too

‘Nobody sets out to run a bad school, they just don’t know what good looks like.’ This oft-quoted and probably anecdotal line about education is attributed to Professor Tim Brighouse, guiding light of the London Challenge, one of the most successful school improvement programmes ever undertaken in Britain.

Cited in government research as one of the most important factors in turning state schools in the UK capital from among the worst performing in the country to the best performing in just under a decade, the programme developed a number of principles which could equally be applied to language centres: co-operation between schools is better than competition, so set up families of schools with similar profiles and encourage them to work with each other; find out what works and don’t quash it – spread it; and monitor progress for schools, teachers and students.

All of this may sound like a plethora of politically correct platitudes – but, perhaps surprisingly, it ties in with the practices of many of the UK language centres which score most highly on British Council inspections.

Take the idea of setting up families of schools. This seems to me to be exemplified by The English Network (TEN), an association of ten schools all with a similar profile: well-established, independently owned (i.e. not members of a chain) and with a strong academic reputation and team of highly qualified, experienced and, above all, permanent staff of teachers and administrators. Established just over five years ago and dedicated from the start to sharing ideas and experience in every facet of ELT from management to administration, its members soon dominated the EL Gazette Centre of Excellence rankings.

Well they would, wouldn’t they? Or so a cynic might think. After all, they are precisely the kind of establishments which tend to do well anyway. As our analysis on page ix of this supplement shows, private language schools which have been in operation for more than 25 years outperform both the younger independents and the chain schools. The evidence is that the TEN members’ creative combination of close co-operation and even closer rivalry has reduced the performance differences between them, as judged by inspection results. When they first established the association around half the members scored in the top 10 per cent, with the lowest scoring well below average. In this year’s ranking, spread across the next five pages, nine out of the ten are in the top 10 per cent, with the lowest-ranking school just two points behind.

If it works for TEN, then surely it should work for a chain? Not necessarily. The analysis from the London Challenge showed that members of academy chains, essentially groups of state schools run by a single management structure, improved less fast than families of schools, while schools that left a family to join an academy chain tended to actually go backwards.

Why? One reason may be that chains have a tendency to implement change from the top down, rather than from the bottom up, contrary to the practitioner-led principle of ‘Find out what works and don’t quash it.’

The secret seems to lie in the role of principals balancing the needs of an individual school with the needs of the group, and co-operation with the competition. The best-performing chains, such as St Giles and Language Studies International, seem to combine a healthy competitive spirit with strong school leaders who firmly see their school as part of a bigger entity. The whoops of glee from one St Giles principal on hearing his school was now the best-performing in the chain were exceeded only by his cheers on hearing that the chain had overtaken Embassy in the league tables.

Membership of Eaquals, which increasingly looks like a family of chains with some independents, seems to have some of the same impact in spreading good practice. Eaquals membership is highly correlated with British Council ranking, as we showed in our March issue, and after a year or two of membership chains begin to rise up the table.

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Pic caption: Still on top form at forty years old, students at English in Chester, a founder member of The English Network (TEN), celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary. Such long-establishing independent centres are the top performers in the private language school sector.

It is Eaqual’s founder school, Eurocentres, that exemplifies the third principle of the London Challenge: monitor progress. Not only was this Swiss-based not-for-profit organisation integral to the creation of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, its commitment to assessing progress on every step of the student journey has become an industry benchmark. The Eurocentres method of benchmarking, perfected by Dr Brian North, is also practitioner-led – based on scientific surveys of best practice. It is precisely using this methodology that Eurocentres has risen to become the top-performing chain, and it is the most consistent in our Centres of Excellence rankings.

Professor Tim Brighouse would not, I think, have been the slightest bit surprised.