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Point of View: ‘The need for good English teachers across the world is immense’

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The English education industry can transform lives, says Sarah Cooper.

Can you remember a teacher who made a difference to your life? I can and I bet we all can. Flip it – I also bet every teacher remembers certain learners. I certainly do.

Three stand out in my mind: Farhad, Roberto and Tihetana. The reason I remember those three so clearly is that, although utterly different in social, cultural and educational background, they had one thing in common: learning English transformed their lives. We could say that about many of our learners, but these three cases stand out in my memory.

Farhad was sixteen and a refugee from Afghanistan. He spoke fluent Pashto and Farsi but could not read or write. He was a student in our pre-entry level literacy class, learning English to survive in the country that had taken him in.

Roberto was 25 and from Spain. His English was already pretty good, but he came to our evening academic English class as he needed Ielts 8.5 to be accepted onto a masters course in journalism in London.

Tihetana was twenty and from Ethiopia/Eritrea. She had one parent from each country and was bundled into a van by them to escape the war as a seven-year-old child. She came to this country alone, with nothing, and started anew.

Her English was peppered with inaccuracies by the time she reached our academic English class thirteen years later, after years in our education system, and she was not at all confident about expressing herself. But she desperately wanted to get onto an Access programme to be able to study nursing.

Learning other languages is key to our understanding of the world and meaningful interaction with our fellow global inhabitants. English is the language of academe, of medicine, of business, of cultural communication, and the British Council estimates that two billion people will be using it as the ‘operating system of global conversation’ by 2020.

I am absolutely passionate about the power of English in its ability to transform lives, and I am equally passionate about the industry that makes this possible.

So how lucky am I to be in a job that enables me to push the agenda on that industry’s behalf every single day?

I learned about ELT early. My first experience came when I was a teenager, as ours was a homestay family. We hosted students from the Purley Language Centre (still going strong I’m delighted to say) and so we were lucky enough to be exposed to all sorts of different cultures, foods and opinions as we grew up.

My three siblings and I all learned several languages; my mother taught languages, so it was in our blood and I grew up relishing the opportunity to learn another language.

This both encouraged and enabled me to travel and work abroad. And when I reflect now, I realise how much I took this for granted and did not appreciate at the time how lucky I was.

My early career was in business but the little voice inside me urging me to teach got louder and louder, resulting in a complete change in direction in my life when I enrolled on a Celta at my local FE college. I have never looked back, and worked at that same college for the next sixteen years, teaching mainly academic and business English to students from China, Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria and many other countries until I moved into management.

The ELT industry trains people to make a difference. It sends teachers abroad to teach as well as Celta trainers to train the teachers of the future.

The need for good English teachers across the world is immense, as country after country seeks to build its national competence in English, aspiring to delivery of the school curriculum in English. The high standard of the UK ELT sector is in demand as never before to help with these challenging capacity-building projects.

We teach learners in this country with whom we forge links forever. The Italian teenager may not realise it at the time, but a door is opened.

The ability to communicate effectively in English is one of the keys to the door of employment or further study.

Our young learners are often the UK’s international undergraduates a few years down the line. In an increasing number of countries, a good level of English is one of the five key competencies sought by employers, as is the experience of studying or working abroad.

The role of English UK is to lead the industry in its pursuit of quality – to give the best possible experience for students coming here. We help the wider education industry and government understand the power and role of English in the international education context, and we fight to get our voice heard every day.

So what happened to Farhad, Roberto and Tihetana? Roberto got his Ielts 8.5 and his career is now in its ascendancy.

Tihetana got the English and the confidence she needed to join that Access course for the career she dreamed of. And Farhad struggled – but he got the language skills to survive and thrive in his adopted country.

It’s my job to make sure our industry can support everyone like Farhad, Roberto and Tihetana, and that’s what gets me out of bed every day.


Sarah Cooper is Chief Executive of English UK.