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Melanie Butler asks Kaplan’s Maria Duhan the secret behind the consistent success of their UK schools at British Council inspections

You started out by running your own school. How did that prepare you for the job you are doing now?

When you run your own business, you are responsible for all aspects – from sales and marketing to HR and finance. You quickly learn what it takes to be successful because you have to be in order to stay in business. You need to move constantly with a changing environment, which is very exhilarating.

This experience has been helpful in my current role as director of operations for the UK and Ireland because I understand how to support the needs of our various departments. Having started my career as a teacher and teacher trainer, I am also able to support our teacher and product development.

In our most recent analysis of British Council inspection results (page iii of the Quality Analysis supplement with this issue) your schools in the UK come out as the most consistently strong of the larger chains for adults. About four years ago your profile was much more jagged. Is the increase in consistency the result of evolution or revolution?

Over the past five years we’ve created a framework which supports our constant drive to improve – and our employees play a key role in this. Their key performance indicators are aligned with in-depth student feedback covering all areas of the student experience, and staff are empowered to implement improvements when they spot opportunities. Every year we set up development plans for each school, department and individual employee in alignment with the goals of the business to ensure our centres of excellence become the standard.

Kaplan schools operate in eight English-speaking countries. How do you monitor consistency on an international scale?

We achieve consistency in our teaching standards through use of our own K+ online and offline materials. We monitor the consistency of the entire student experience through student surveys which show we achieve superior student satisfaction.

Kaplan materials combine skills-based work with language areas. Depending on their language background, different students have different skills profiles. How does the Kaplan system help differentiated student needs?

Students take a placement test when they first arrive which covers grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking and writing, and they take further tests every five weeks, giving us a highly accurate picture of each student’s level. All students have a one to one tutorial to discuss test scores, future learning objectives and negotiate a learning plan, enabling goals to be set to ensure the student progresses as quickly as possible. Intensive-course students are placed in an elective class which enables them to improve on areas where they are weaker.

K+Tools allows students to complete exercises directly related to what they have been studying in K+Notes, or they can study through K+eXtra, which enables them to choose the area and difficulty level.

Talking to government agencies responsible for placing state-sponsored students, we find that they put high academic standards and fast progress at the top of the wish list. Most accreditation schemes don’t monitor progression. How does Kaplan monitor progress?

We take progression seriously and keep a close eye on our students. Our adaptive test gives us extremely accurate data, allowing us to give more detailed and tailored recommendations to students. Teachers can also log on to our online learning platform to track students’ progress, and school management can use our classing database to make comparisons based on a student’s school, course, class, nationality, length of stay, age or gender.

In your experience with working with government-sponsored students, what are the biggest challenges and advantages?

Sponsored students have very specific needs for additional support, for example to reach their required exam results or hone vocabulary in a narrow field of study such as aviation, and our support systems ensure students reach their goals. All our schools have tutors responsible for sponsored students, making sure study plans are followed, supporting cultural adjustment and dealing with rigorous reporting schedules. Specifically for sponsored students from the Middle East, who are with us for a long time, the biggest challenge is to keep them motivated, but it is fantastic to see them progress to higher language levels.

From a global perspective, where do you see the role of sponsoring governments in the longer term?

Having been in this business for over 25 years, I have seen many governments, from Spain to Saudi Arabia, sponsor their young people to learn English in the environment in which it is spoken. Governments rightly recognise their youth can improve career prospects by learning English and becoming ‘more international’ in outlook. I think governments will continue to play a significant role in our industry over the next decade.

If you were trying to sum up the Kaplan ethos for students and their sponsors, what three things would you say were most important?

We promise our students will ‘learn English, enjoy new cultures, make new friends and see the world’. We make this happen through our academic excellence, with specifically designed textbooks, extensive online materials, and comprehensive training and development for our teachers; focus on providing the ‘experience of a lifetime’ for students whether in class, at home in a residence or host family, on a social trip or just hanging out with new friends; and advanced technology including our online platform, which complements what students do in class and guides them to what they need to study. The consistently positive feedback from our students is testament to how well we deliver on our promise.