From humble Tefl beginnings to top of the tree at the British Council, John Knagg tells Melanie Butler he still wants to know the best way to teach English to children.
‘I was working at a fish restaurant in Greece. It was the end of the season and I was looking for a way of not going home. I met a girl called Felicity who told me I could get a job teaching English in Athens. I said I didn’t know anything about teaching English, she told me it didn’t matter…’
This is a classic tale of a Tefl backpacker, perhaps, but John Knagg, global head of English for Education Systems at the British Council and chair of Accreditation UK, is hardly your typical backpacker.
Born in Bury in Greater Manchester, he read classics at Oxford. And, like many of the successful EFL figures from the late 1970s, his teaching career has been interspersed with further studies.
After a couple of years teaching in Athens, a friendly boss took him aside and told him it was time to decide if he wanted to become a real teacher, so he took himself off to the University of Bangor for a PGCE in EFL.
A job for the British Council in Barcelona was followed by an MSc at Edinburgh. A Council post in London in 1990 led to a diploma in business administration.
Small wonder, then, that he champions EFL research. He talks with fatherly pride of the ELT Research Awards (ELTRA) scheme which he designed and which can be accessed free on-line. He brings me a bundle of British Council books to take home. We talk briefly about a title on young learners by Oxford’s Vicki Murphy and Maria Evangelou – solving the problem of teaching English to young children is a particular passion. If money was no object, I ask, which research question would he most like to see answered?
‘What level of proficiency do teachers of primary English really need to have ?’ he replies, quick as a flash.
On the eve of retirement, he can look back at a Council career which has been nothing if not global: assistant director of studies in Kuwait, a stint as language centre manager in Portugal and Singapore and then nearly nine years in Latin America as country director – first in Ecuador and then Chile.
Ten years ago, John finally came back to the Council in Manchester and moved with his family back home to Bury. With long experience running large-scale projects overseas, he says that being chair of Accreditation UK, a scheme which inspects and accredits over 500 schools, was one of the best professional experiences in his life.
He thinks the biggest change he has seen in his career is that ‘English has gone from being seen as a foreign language to being a basic skill.’ That has led to a switch in emphasis from adults to children and to an understanding of the importance to the profession of non-native speakers.
Embarrassed that his only qualification for getting his first EFL job was being a native-speaker of English, he welcomes the growing recognition of the importance of local English teachers and is fascinated by the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca.
He worries, however, about the pressure from governments and parents to start English at an ever-younger age in public school systems.
‘We don’t really have evidence that an earlier start is beneficial in itself though we do know there is a serious shortage of well-qualified local teachers to meet the growing demand.
There is a real danger we are seeing more and more hours of teaching at school but not seeing the desired increase in children’s language levels.’
This is the kind of question that led John to set up research on English as a Medium of Instruction(EMI). The study found that – when it is started before children are ready or when teachers do not have sufficient English language skills – EMI actually lowers the educational attainment of children in state schools.
‘Some people assume the British Council advocates the use of English in education in any circumstance,’ he says.
‘That is not the case. Where we find that an approach is not working, we say so.’
After forty years in ELT, the question of the best way of teaching younger learners remains a preoccupation. ‘What I wanted to know when I started out,’ he says, remembering his backpacking days, ‘was how to get the attention of an enthusiastic but ebullient group of Greek teenagers. I am still asking the same question.’
John Knagg is global head of English for Education Systems at the British Council and chair of Accreditation UK.