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Make A Confident Choice

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With demand for qualified teachers outstripping supply across East Asia, Duncan Verry explains why accreditation is key to raising standards

As education inspection systems worldwide strive for the improvement of educational practices to raise student outcomes – and no doubt secure bragging rights over fellow education ministers with an elevated position in the OECD Pisa rankings – it is interesting to look around the world and evaluate what impact this trend has had on language centres, if any. Unesco identifies a ‘hard governance’ and ‘soft governance’ approach to education accreditation. Hard governance is the setting of performance targets and use of data and indicators to foster competition and improvement. The soft governance approach relies on self-evaluation and creating networks for best-practice learning.

The key destination markets are well-served by accreditation systems, although there are variations in the openness and transparency of the data and inspection results, and they sit at different points of the hard–soft governance continuum. While some of these markets wrestle with the economic and moral dilemma – data openness versus open doors – they do still only serve a tiny fraction of the overall market and all go well beyond any domestic provision in source markets. So why do the domestic markets, where quality and experienced teachers are less easy to come by, not manage the quality of their language centres? Ultimately the state will look after its national schooling system first and foremost. The growth and mobility shifts for English language learning in Asian markets is creating huge competition between countries for student travel. The customers will surely decide, but on what basis do they make this decision on with what confidence?

Vast numbers of hours of learning are spent from tender to teenage years, yet it is a disappointing picture. For all of the investment of time and money from students, there is a woeful lack of quality, regulation and independent information to help choose a language centre. It is easier to find an independent assessments of burger restaurants or noodle bars than a language school. The supply of qualified teachers in East Asian language schools cannot meet demand, and the huge growth in the number of schools in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and China has created a market of variable quality delivered within the classrooms in each country – and also by the schools online, as they use this channel to reach into neighbouring markets.

State education departments in these countries regularly set themselves ambitious programmes in two areas: to achieve higher rankings within university league tables, and many vice chancellors have bewilderingly difficult key performance indicators to dislodge the established elite; and to increase the level of English language learning to a point of bilingualism. Yet the local markets for language school provision are far removed from the standards and regulation expected of other education providers, within the country and internationally, and do not reflect their achievements in Pisa rankings. Through its Centres of Excellence scheme and the rankings based on British Council Accreditation UK data, the EL Gazette has long supported quality systems and inspection schemes that assist in raising standards within language teaching. Rankings are a natural evolution of quality systems and have had an impact on the educational landscape for a number of years, and will continue to do so. The methodologies of rankings are always under scrutiny and should come under challenge and regular re-appraisal of the data and the methods of measurement. International and domestic rankings of universities can be effective tools for helping to manage government funds in student sponsorship and collaborative research programmes. State education departments in developing countries are increasingly protecting their investments by limiting choice to the best universities of internationally respected rankings. Could the same happen for ELT?

The majority of English language study is of course primarily a private market in terms of student fees, but the lucrative contracts and relationships with state authorities must surely come under the spotlight soon. How long will government sponsors or self-funded students continue with the imperfect knowledge of what happens at the school and prolong the asymmetric market? The UK, through the British Council’s Accreditation UK, stands up to scrutiny with an established inspection system. It is less well served by the government’s attitude towards international students, and all the openness and transparency in the world cannot overturn a cold-hearted and selective attitude to a customer. Other destination markets are covered to various extents, but it appears that the desire to recruit international students is stronger than the desire to publish inspection results or commit to a more detailed level of measurement.

Failure to adopt quality standards, openness and transparency around outcomes may leave language centres at the mercy of online provision. Language travel will remain the preserve of the fortunate few, but as more students choose to stay at home and home markets become saturated with poor quality offerings, students will seek to take control in a medium they know and trust. Busuu has acquired 60 million users in eight years, adding at a rate of 100,000 per day. Its announced move into B2B provision with Busuu PRO – in partnership with McGraw Hill – suggests a focused and determined effort that, along with other providers, will become a serious challenge to the soft edges of non-accredited classroom provision.