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What global big fish can learn from local language school minnows

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The language travel industry lags far behind in-country schools in terms of knowing where the market is going, says Melanie Butler.

The vast majority of students attending a private language school are enrolled in one in their home country.

Just three percent are studying a language abroad, according to research by Student Marketing.

The language travel industry sees itself as separate and superior – a proper, grown-up industry, increasingly made up of large international chains concerned with things like service levels, agent networks and ‘return on capital’.

Big fish operators see the local schools as small-fry mum-and-pop operations selling to local parents and companies and worrying about ‘minor’ issues such as student learning and exam results.

If language travel bosses think about local schools at all, it sees them as competition. But do they imagine that a seven-year-old from Milan studying two hours a week after school would otherwise be jetting off to Melbourne or Manchester for a three-week residential?

When it comes to understanding the change in markets, however, the local in-country schools are years ahead.

Recently, a well-known UK operator was talking about the failure of yet another central London language school targeting the travel market.

‘Perhaps the business model is out of date,’ she said. ‘Perhaps big, shiny, city-centre schools is no longer the way to go.’

In my mind I hear the response from a thousand owners of local language schools, from Surabaya to Seville – ‘Well, duh!’

Most local language schools decamped from city centres decades ago. For example, a young English man opened his first language school in a Tokyo suburb in 1977, aware that the market for anxious young workers struggling to learn English was gradually being replaced by troops of ever-younger children. By 1990, Shane Lipscombe, then owner of fifty Shane schools, summed up his strategy for me in five short words: ‘Go where the families are.’

I thought of Shane’s words when, a year or two ago, an upmarket central London school was contacted by an Italian agent wanting to bring a group of EU-funded students.

‘What I want,’ the agent said, ‘is nice middle-class host families in Zone 1 at a cost of £100 a week including an en-suite bathroom, two meals a day and three at weekends.’

Dream on! It is simply impossible to find a host family for that money in Manhattan. Ditto in Central Paris. The going rate in Beijing is twice as high.

Even in Malta, as we reported last month, schools are looking for host families in rural villages because the supply in the coastal resorts is dropping off.

The host family crisis exists across most of the language-travel world. And the causes are always the same: rising house prices mean the middle class can no longer afford to live in the centre or have big houses with spare rooms or mothers who don’t work to pay the mortgage.

One solution is student residences, at least for the market of anxious young people desperate to learn English to further their careers. But in the language travel market for English, the fastest-growing segment is the one for groups of ever-younger school children coming year-round for short courses.

Student residences won’t take them and few schools are set up to run short-stay boarding houses for juniors.

Juniors, though, are good news. From Tokyo to Turin, they will tell you that parents stick with schools they like. They will enrol their child in a local language school aged six and they are likely to stay there until they are at least twelve.

More normally, they stay until sixteen or eighteen years old. In an academic downturn, private education is the last thing families cut.

Far from choosing local schools over language travel, research by Student Marketing shows that families that send their children locally are much more likely to send them overseas as well.

Of course, local language schools sell to consumers – it’s a B2C market in the jargon. Language travel uses agents, which are, of course, businesses taking commission – the business model is B2B.

Both have their drawbacks. As the supply in a market increases, so does the cost of marketing to consumers. As the cost of marketing to consumers rises, so does the commission charged by agents.

To reduce the marketing costs, agents themselves tend to try to recruit through local state schools.

Till Gins, chief executive of the UK’s largest group of language schools, has been doing the same in France for at least thirty years. Many local language chains go one step further: they hire the room in the primary schools and teach the children who are already there.

Michael Bondarev of IH Moscow started his school in 1990, as the Soviet Union fell, and grew the business by forming partnerships with primary schools.

‘Headteachers,’ he told me ‘are our best friends.’ Schools, like companies and parents, are reliable clients. They tend to work with the same language schools year after year. Schools in Europe now receive funding for language travel direct from the EU.

Private schools in the Middle East now offer summer-abroad trips to lure in the parents.

In China, the government backs schools in sending children overseas for a semester.

Time for the mighty barons of language travel to follow the path long trodden by local language schools and head for the headteacher’s office?


Testing times for Pon language schools?

Language schools in Ireland, Malta and the UK can expect up to 30,000 Italian state funded students this year as the 100 million Pon funds have been approved.

However, since money is only paid when a student has successfully passed an approved language test, the Italian government’s decision to push for an exam testing all four skills presents new problems for course providers.

To qualify for funding from Pon (Programma Operativo Nazionale) students must have B1 English and the funding is only released if they pass a a recognised, externally marked, language exam at B2 at the end of the course. The list of exams recognised by the government include those offered by Cambridge, Trinity and, since the beginning of this year, LanguageCert.

The exam can be taken either at the host language school or when the candidate returns home.
However, language schools, who typically receive less than half the €3,100 allocated to each student for the three week trip, have generally opted to offer on-demand tests to improve cash flow.

However, the new drive for students to take a four skills language exam, rather than the traditional speaking and listening tests, would mean some on-demand test providers are ruled out. To fill the gap, LanguageCert, which bought the well-known City and Guilds four skills exam suite, is offering the updated test on-demand with 10 days’ notice for exam bookings.

It is also offering automatic centre recognition to all accredited language schools in the UK and Ireland.

This year, all Italian high schools are eligible for Pon funding for one group of 15 students.

Most are expected to opt for English language courses in one of the three English-speaking Erasmus countries: Ireland, Malta or the UK.