Melanie Butler explains why Devon is her number one destination for school groups looking for English language courses
My number one destination for school groups looking for short English language courses outside the school holidays is Devon, a shire county in the south west of England. My choice has nothing to do with the sandy beaches, stunning national parks or even its warm climate. I would recommend Devon because of its unique system of safeguarding children and the high number of language schools that specialise in young learners.
Of course, its famous cream teas are an added bonus. Devon has long offered local language schools the opportunity to have all their homestay families vetted by the same service that checks foster families. This level of child-protection checks is the highest in the UK and possibly in the world.
Crime rates in the region are well below national average, even in the larger towns. Although tourism is a major industry, most visitors are from Britain – it’s a classic family holiday destination for the English. It also has had a low level of immigration, with 95 per cent of its population British-born, and is definitely more ‘typically English’ than ‘cosmopolitan’ – young adults in search of a cool nightlife should head for the university cities of Exeter and Plymouth, while the beautiful small coastal towns are perfect for younger learners.
The other major advantage to Devon is that it has long been a hub for year-round young learners, which means that it has the educational infrastructure in place to deal with school groups – teachers experienced in teaching under-16s, good year-round leisure programmes for this age group, and a supply of suitable accommodation. With the growth of the school-group market, every other language school in Britain has started to offer courses for closed groups of under-16s, but the expertise needed for teaching businessmen and university students does not help you deal with the needs of twenty Italian fifteen-year-olds or a class from a Chinese primary school.
It is definitely the family-run schools rather than the chains that have made the running. There have been family-run young-learner specialist courses in Sidmouth and Exeter since the 1970s and in Ilfracombe since the late ’80s. Schools in the ‘English Riviera’ resorts of Torquay and Paignton have a long tradition of junior summer schools, which they have used to build up their year-round offering, as have the schools in the picture-perfect inland town of Totnes. In the last ten years, a company has been set up in Exmouth focusing almost exclusively on closed groups of young learners.
Not everything is perfect.
Devon is a wealthy region but, as in most of the UK, house prices are very high, so students or agents looking for host families with children of the same age as students are likely to be disappointed. Very few young families in Devon can afford a house with spare bedrooms, and most providers choose to offer homestay when their children leave home. But this is true in most of England.
I can think of individual schools in other parts of Britain that have real expertise teaching under-16s – one in Southampton, one in Edinburgh, two in Yorkshire – but Devon has by far the largest specialist resource.
And young learners in Devon can benefit not only from its specialist English teaching but from its wealth of family-friendly tourist offerings, its sandy beaches replete with water sport facilities, its medieval towns and its beautiful countryside. And, the added bonus, its famous cream teas.