Melanie Butler talks to Steve Brent, CEO of International House London, about how the centre’s new agreement with King’s College London is just a taste of things to come
The last time I saw Steve Brent, CEO of International House (IH) London, was at the signing of the agreement for the new masters in Tesol jointly delivered with King’s College London (see page three). This is one of two current ventures between the world-ranking London university and the IH mother house, which, as King’s vice principal for arts and sciences Evelyn Welch pointed out at the signing, is ‘the biggest centre for English language teacher training in the world’.
Steve has had a stellar career in ELT, working for the Centre for British Teachers in Malaysia, the British Council in Oman and Eurocentres in the UK before joining IH fifteen years ago. But how did he first get involved in English language teaching? ‘As a secondary school teacher I found myself having to teach Homer’s Odyssey to classes of teenagers who couldn’t read, while the whole school was arguing about whether Blue House should be renamed Brandreth House and what Red House should be called. I couldn’t stand it. I started looking for a different job.’
A short time later he found himself with his wife Mary teaching English at Berlitz Paris. This was not the first change of career for this northern grammar school boy. Having graduated in English and history from the tiny but historic University of Wales Lampeter – ‘I absolutely loved it’ – he tried his hand at a number of things, including working in a holiday camp and a spell for the tax authorities – ‘My parents really liked that one.’ Steve first came to International House in 1980 when he took a diploma course, and followed that up with a masters from Birmingham undertaken while he was working in Malaysia. ‘Malcolm Coulthard and Mike McCarthy were the resident tutors and it was Mike who inspired me to write my thesis on vocabulary.’
Steve’s obvious academic strength combines with a love for the practical aspects of teacher training. He tells me of a recent visit to the IH headquarters in Covent Garden by a group of Danish headteachers looking for ideas for teaching immigrant children. ‘We thought we couldn’t really help them. We thought they needed to be spending time in British schools with their peers. But the next day they came to us and said they were really interested in the practical way we trained teachers and wanted to work with us.’
His wife Mary works with immigrant English language learners in a London school, ‘It’s amazing what they learn in a short time – amazing.’ Steve’s paternal grandfather was sent to England from Lithuania as a seventeen year old to avoid conscription into the Russian army. ‘My family name was Bagurski, which is Polish, but there was a deal when my father married my mother – he would change his name to something English and we would be brought up Catholic. My children much prefer Bagurski – they don’t want to be called Brent.’ None of his three children has caught the teaching bug. His eldest is a paediatrician, his second a drummer, while his youngest is studying maths and German – perhaps not such an unusual combination for the son of a language teacher who once worked for the Inland Revenue.
There is no doubt that Steve has a good business mind. He is famous for pioneering the short Ielts preparation courses at Eurocentres – ‘Ielts testing and teaching is a massive part of our business at IH now’ – as well as launching summer schools at St Edward’s Oxford, first of all for Eurocentres – ‘and now I have them back for the IH summer school’. Steve believes in networks. The collaboration with King’s on a masters arose in part through an ex-IH trainer now working at KCL. ‘They wanted to be able to offer inexperienced teachers practical hands-on teaching – that is what we do.’ In return, IH is plugged into the latest academic research from one of the country’s top departments.
The importance of strategic partnerships between training providers will, he believes, be a key factor in future projects. ‘We are already working with them on a major new project for Peru. The Peruvian government has announced that it intends to make the country bilingual in five years. A major element of that is teacher training, and for the best teachers they wanted that to happen overseas with a view to some of those teachers becoming trainers when they go home. They wanted projects that were allied with universities. Only two UK providers got it – ourselves with KCL and Nile with the University of East Anglia. The first 151 teachers arrived at the beginning of February.’
Steve combines the skills of the astute businessman, the hands-on teacher trainer and the academic, a combination he believes is grounded in his northern working-class roots. ‘My great mentor was Oliver Sidall, a northerner to his bootlaces, who ran the global English Language teaching and examinations network at the British Council.’ And, as someone whose future was shaped when he won a place aged eleven at a selective grammar school, he has the northerners’ belief in the importance of education and the influence of teachers. ‘I owe so much to my teachers. In the end, it is all about the teachers.’
NETWORK NEWS Steve Brent signing the agreement with world-ranking KCL to jointly deliver a new masters in Tesol (Courtesy KCL/IH)