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EL Rankings 2016: Prying into the private sector

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Melanie Butler looks at inspection results for chains and independents

Only 52 per cent of British-Council-inspected centres are private language schools (PLSs) in the traditional sense, Gazette research reveals. Of the 288 PLSs defined as year-round schools teaching English language courses to adults and often also juniors, 46 per cent now belong to chains of three schools or more. However there are only seven chains with more than six UK-based British-Council-accredited centres.

Independent PLSs, together with their summer school operations, make up 28 per cent of all accredited centres. They perform a little below the average: 26 per cent of them appear in the EL Gazette Centres of Excellence ranking compared to 38 per cent overall; 23 per cent receive one or more ‘needs for improvement’ compared to 20 per cent overall. Six of them have their accreditation under review. On average, the summer operations of independent PLSs perform below their year-round mother schools, with only two schools – Anglo-Continental and Churchill House – achieving Centre of Excellence standard for both their adult and junior operations.

The chains perform slightly better, with a third of then appearing as Centres of Excellence. The rankings are dominated by six chains: Eurocentres, Kaplan, EF and St Giles for adults, and for young learners Skola. Only the three Bell schools have received a Centre of Excellence award for both their adult and their junior operations. In chains, as in independent language schools, excellence with adults does not necessarily transfer to excellence in juniors, or vice versa.

Where chains fall down is in their propensity to collect needs for improvement – given by British Council inspectors when centres fail to meet the requirements in a significant number of criteria within a single area. Overwhelmingly that area is in publicity, and typical criticism involves unsubstantiated claims about methods, exaggerating teacher qualifications and lack of clarity about costs. Chain schools make up 24 per cent of accredited centres but 45 per cent of all the centres given a need for improvement in publicity. Not all chains, however, should be tarred with the same brush – among the well-ranking chains where not one single school has a need for improvement in anything are Bell, Eurocentres, Kaplan, St Giles, Skola and our fastest-rising chain Language Studies International.

One reason why chains outperform private language schools is that they charge more. Although there is no clear correlation between quality and price, of 53 independents that charge £10 a teaching hour or less only one, Live Languages in Glasgow, is a Centre of Excellence. It is incredibly difficult to run a top-ranking privately owned school at a price which is below the average for Beijing. There is no clear correlation between price and quality in chains either, although three of the high-performing chains show a clear value offer: Eurocentres has an average score of 12 areas of strength and an average price per hour of around £20, St Giles averages 9 strengths at around £16 per hour and Language Studies International averages 5.5 strengths at around £13 per hour.

However, there is one group of independent schools that knocks chains for six: those founded more than 25 years ago which have not been taken over by chains. Perhaps the most famous of these belong to The English Network (TEN), but they are not the only schools of this kind. They make up 13 per cent of the total of British Council centres, over 50 per cent of them are Centres of Excellence, but only 7 per cent have any needs for improvement. From the historic London School of English, more than a century old, to the delightful Lake School of English, which costs less than £13 an hour, the long-established independent language schools dominate the league tables. Their characteristics – well-established, owned by families or not for profit – are shared by some of the best-performing chains: Eurocentres, Bell, St Giles, Skola and Language Studies International.

These are also the traits of the best-performing sector: boarding schools. Not one of them has a single need for improvement and 64 per cent of them are Centres of Excellence. Why? Only a few of them, such as Harrow, Sherborne and Millfield, belong to the upper echelons of traditional public schools, but they are all steeped in the traditions of British education and they are almost always well established. On average the boarding schools inspected by the British Council are 163 years old.

If you want to buy quality in Britain, it pays to choose the traditional and long established. It is what we do best.

Pic courtesy: London School of English