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Why parents deserve more than just a roll of the dice

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Parents often foot the bill for language travel but a lack of information about safeguarding and teaching can make choosing a language school a risky business, writes Melanie Butler.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. Except when it comes to language travel.

A recent press release from English UK points out there are three main stakeholders: the students, the agents and the parents who pay the fees.

The students want a good time. The agents want good service levels and, though English UK are much too polite to mention this, bigger commissions.

The parents, who foot the bill, worry about safety and academic quality.

I was that parent.

Unusually for a Brit, I sent my child abroad to study every year for four years. Even as an expert, I found it difficult to find out which schools offer quality. You ask other parents. You trawl the internet. If you can find a consumer brand you know, you plump for it.

My daughter’s first trip was organised by her school. Her group went to the Madrid branch of a prestigious language teaching brand I knew well, a brand I have taught for. Did she make any progress? I don’t know, I never received a report. How was the academic quality? ‘OK, I guess,’ said the teenager.

She told me more about the ‘host family’: an elderly single lady who housed half a dozen girls at a time, fed them on spaghetti and locked the front door at 8.30pm every night. At least they were safe. Or they would have been, had they not all climbed out of the window and headed for the nearest bar.

My Spanish friends have long complained about British host families.

Now I could tell them, it is not just the UK. The next year an agent friend suggested Costa Rica. Another school which didn’t send a report, another single old lady, another complaint about the food.

Then friends told me Spain’s accreditation system was run by the University of Salamanca and the Instituto Cervantes.

You cannot imagine what a relief accreditation brings parents. Somebody who actually knows something about language teaching has actually inspected this school: a Ministry of Education, a university, the British Council. Somebody has looked at it and said it is good enough.

Accreditation worked for my family; one great university course, one very good one and a perfectly adequate private language school and my daughter’s Spanish blossomed.

Housing remained an issue. The Spanish accreditation system, very strict on teaching standards, doesn’t care un pimiento about the rest.
So, after one more miserable ‘host mother’ we switched to university residences. No accreditation scheme is perfect.

I have my arguments with the British Council inspectors. They were too slow to implement child protection, and they are too quick to accept lousy terms and conditions which make teaching almost impossible.

Instead, as we reveal on the March issue, they let schools hire more and more non-graduates.

And why the hell is student progress just one tiny criteria among a hundred? No more or less important than timetabling or good signage. What do they think parents are sending their children abroad for – nice toilets? Worldwide I have seen a lot of good schemes. The old NEAS scheme in Australia was pretty good, really strong on teacher qualification and experience. Though, as a Brit, I simply don’t understand an inspection system which doesn’t observe teaching.

I had a lot of time for the Irish Acels scheme, with its spot inspections and its inspectors from the department of education. Both schemes have been shut down.

The Australian government has replaced theirs. The Irish government, however, just put the old Acels scheme into cold storage until a ‘new’ International Education Mark was launched. That was nearly ten years ago.

The new scheme is grinding its way through the Irish Parliament. A quick read through the code of practice, however, will not reassure many parents.

It promises to check the publicity, which is a comfort. It promises to check the agents – good. It even promises ‘learner protection’, by which they mean ‘fee protection’.

If the school fails, you get your money back.

But what about risk assessment? What about child protection? Are they going to insist that every teacher and every host family are properly vetted? There is no mention of any of this. Nor is there one word about teaching or teacher qualifications or learners’ progress. Nor is there any promise to publish the results, as the British Council and the Independent Schools Inspectorate do.

The British Accreditations Council is also planning to do so in its new scheme for local language schools (see March's interview).

It’s the British way. And that is why the EL Gazette publishes the results in those reports. It’s for parents like me.


No more tickets in Clubclass

The news of the closure of Clubclass language school in London, just weeks after the Academy St John’s Wood, is another reminder that, although trading conditions have improved, the UK language school industry has yet to fully recover. London was particularly hit in the 2015-2016 downturn and city centre schools may also have been hit last year by the series of terrorist attacks.

Reports suggest Manchester, though, was not affected by the Manchester Arena bombing. Overall, however, the number of British Council accredited language centres has declined only slightly since the beginning of 2016, dropping just nine per cent, according to EL Gazette database records. Losses in traditional destinations such as London and Bournemouth seem to have been counterbalanced by schools opening in new hotspots like Wales and Edinburgh.

With over 500 centres still accredited, the British Council scheme looks still to be the biggest ELT accreditation system in the world.