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Agents play the name game

Melanie Butler and Vasana Gorner investigate the problems Spanish parents might face when agents ‘white label’ junior summer school courses

Every year thousands of Spanish parents watch as their children file though passport control with a group of their peers and a teacher and climb aboard a plane on the way to a language school whose name the parents do not know. The agent’s website features some pictures of a beach, a description of the town and a pdf of a Google map with a red marker which reveals, when you click on it, that this of the location of the ‘English language school’.

Small wonder then that thousands more choose instead to send their child to a famous boarding school whose name they do know and which they can google. This agent’s website describes it in terms such as ‘one of the most prestigious in the United Kingdom’, while extolling its ‘Harry-Potter-style buildings’ and ‘excellent academic results’. What the website doesn’t always make clear is that the course is not run by the prestigious school, but instead by an unaccredited language school organisation which is not covered by national legislation for the prevention of child abuse.

The Spanish junior summer school market is not the only one to sell courses without telling the client the name of the provider: agents worldwide want to avoid parents booking direct. However, Spain is the largest European market for UK residential junior courses and its agents use some of the most flowery rhetoric on their websites. Few go as far as Say Languages (see front page) by stating, inaccurately, that a major public school runs its leisure programme, or implying that an Oxford University college is teaching English to its fourteen-year-olds. But a web search of entries for six major public schools which are let out for the summer unearthed twenty-four websites, none of which mentioned the language school running the operation and ten of which specifically talked of the public schools’ wonderful academic record. A similar search for six boarding schools which run their own summer schools (see facing page) found twenty websites, only one of which pointed out that the boarding school was actually running the course and doing the teaching.

To drill down further we analysed all the junior summer courses run by all twelve of the Spanish agencies listed by English UK as part of its partnership programme. Six of them ran no junior courses at all, and interestingly three of those did not ‘white label’ their adult courses, as the practice of not naming course providers is known. Presumably, the 18 to 24-year-olds at whom their product is aimed demand to know the name of their school and, if you fail to tell them, are savvy enough to track it down using online co-ordinates or images of the school (tricks the Gazette also used in its searches). One agent did not give any information on its website at all but asked potential clients to call.

Of the remaining five, two did not name any language schools, and did not make it clear when courses in boarding schools were run by the boarding schools themselves. Neither, however, traded on the academic record of the boarding school. Another two worked with only one or two boarding courses, both run by boarding schools, and named them.

Another agent promoted thirteen summer locations, of which six were owned and run by boarding schools. Of those six, two were named and described as running the summer course. Another two were described as boarding schools running the summer course, but were not named. For the final two, only the location and course content were described. It did not name any private-sector summer course providers.

The link to the last agency from the English UK website led not to an agent’s site but to a British residential summer school owned by the Holy Family group of Spain and not accredited by the British Council. A search revealed that this group also owned the agency Say Languages. Its promotional material, described in detail on the front page of this paper, proved to be the most contentious we came across.

English UK commented that it would investigate bringing to the agent’s attention any area in which it was in breach of the association’s code of conduct.