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Driven by performance not profit


Melanie Butler asks Steve Phillips about his new role as Eurocentres head of UK schools

NATURAL FIT Steve Phillips (far left) with staff at the head office of top-performing chain Eurocentres, according to BC inspectors (Courtesy Eurocentres)

Last time we spoke you were running the ELT section of a university, and now you are running a chain of UK language schools. From a personal point of view, what made you want to change?

Actually I wasn’t looking to change, I was enjoying immensely the role at Regent’s [Regent’s University London]. I was very much on board with their commitment to languages and culture and how they wanted to integrate that into their main suite of degree programmes.

However, this opportunity arose at Eurocentres and it seemed a natural progression to move to an organisation with a global presence. I was aware of Eurocentres mostly because of their Ielts test centres, but I was attracted initially by their non-profit charitable status. I have always been in the non-profit sector – it’s more of a natural fit for me. Even working in the 1990s in Russia, when there was money to be made, I settled at Moscow State Linguistic University and the Soros Foundation, both non-profit. The non-executive work I do for English UK (vice-chair and chair of the enterprises board) is also a part of this fit. English UK aims to advance the education of international students in the English language. Eurocentres takes that global, not only with English but with other languages and cultures.

Eurocentres has soared up the Centre of Excellence league tables and is the highest-ranking chain based on an analysis of the British Council inspection reports. What is the secret of your success?

Yes, this is a great achievement. It really is the consistency with quality across our schools and partnerships that has put us where we are today. However, this was not achieved by standard-setting alone. Eurocentres has been very proactive in developing its people, and has built a staff across its schools who are dedicated to continually improving our service, by pursuing innovation at a local level and agreeing best practice at both national and international levels. All Eurocentres stakeholders are aware of our identity and shared vision, and this facilitates maintaining a standardised approach and strategic direction, while still prioritising creativity and personalisation in our schools. Finally, we do not focus only on academic quality but also on the holistic student experience. This leads to the assurance that the student’s pre-arrival, accommodation, social and cultural experience is delivered as consistently and effectively as the classroom experience. The success is shown here in student feedback, internal audits and of course external inspections.

With Eurocentres as the great exception, most chains operating in the UK have inconsistent results. A recent research paper by the Sutton Trust on chains in the UK state school system found that chains with a clear ethos were the most consistently good. How would you describe the Eurocentres ethos?

In a nutshell, dedicated to quality. One of our core aims is to contribute towards better understanding among people everywhere by helping to bridge national, cultural and social barriers – this is genuinely what Eurocentres has been about ever since it started in 1948. A key development was Eurocentres becoming a charitable foundation in 1960. As it is not driven by profit, there are no shareholders to satisfy, just trustees who provide excellent governance and are committed to our focus on professional management, quality and innovation in a challenging business environment. In this way the charitable foundation puts the student at the heart of everything.

You have always been a strong supporter of language teaching research, something that Eurocentres has always been directly involved in. What do you think research can bring to a commercial operation?

I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been involved in research in one way or another most of my working life. This is due to my work in universities in Moscow and London, and being part of research committees and seeing first hand the value they bring to an organisation. We’ve just spoken of the Eurocentres ethos. Well it is this ethos of excellence in quality that underpins research at Eurocentres and I hope elsewhere. We have an award-winning academic development team at Eurocentres who take a collaborative approach to research. They engage with the students and seek input from key staff. This engaged research is far more likely to have meaningful outcomes. A good example of this is the key contribution Eurocentres made to the development of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), through its consultancy to the Council of Europe, which began in 1968 and continues today with ongoing work on the CEFR. The CEFR has become the global standard for language teaching and assessment in the last fifteen years chiefly because its scale of levels (and what they mean) was based on a solid validation process involving consultation with hundreds of professionals from diverse international contexts.

One thing clear from an analysis of the Centres of Excellence is that history is important – most of the top twenty language schools are at least fifty years old. Eurocentres was 65 years old a couple of years ago. What do you think you can learn from the history of the company?

When Eurocentres was sixty years old it used the strapline ‘competence and innovation’. We can learn many things from history but one of the most important is how to get it right! We have decades of innovation to draw from, but we must continually question what we do, how and why we do it, in order to remain relevant and future driven. The best way for us to innovate on the international stage is to form solid partnerships with agents, school franchise partners and universities, a strategy that Eurocentres has a lot of historical experience in getting right, and which we are currently actively pursuing for the future.