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British Council’s PRELIM project to support developing countries teach English

On New Year’s Day 2021, a radical education- al experiment began as 17 language centres, all members of the English UK association, began to run virtual English language classes for teachers across 20 developing countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia.

The PRELIM project – short for Partnered Remote Language Improvement – is the brainchild of the British Council’s English for Educational Systems team and is funded by the UK government grant money earmarked for work in the developing world during the financial year ending 1 April 2021. It is designed, according to sources close to the project, to help centres diversify in preparation for the post-pandemic recovery, “because we think the future will not just be business as usual”.

This is not the first time the British Council has put such a project out to tender, but apart from the big teacher-training operators, such as Bell and NILE Norwich (see opposite page), few private language schools have the experience to make a successful bid. Seeing an opportunity to train up more schools to carry out aid work, the Council partnered with the language centre association, English UK, to recruit members to make bids and employed NILE as management consultants to run a community of practice to support participating centres.

Seventeen English UK members put in successful bids, ranging from university language centres, like Sheffield, to boarding schools, like St Clare’s; and from big-name school chains, like Oxford International, to small boutique language schools, like Peartree Language in Cardiff.

“It’s a very cool project,” says English UK’s Tim Barker. “We’ve never done anything like this before, but we hope the experience will lead to more major tenders being broken down into smaller components like this and encourage our members to diversify.”

In another break from business as usual, the British Council devolved the choice of countries and type of projects to the iatefl- affiliated teacher associations around the world. Twenty member associations, from Argentina to Uzbekistan and the Cote D’Ivoire to Vietnam, successfully bid to take part and each successful association was allocated one English UK language centre to work with in designing the project and rolling it out.

This triumvirate of the Council, iatefl and English UK stands out as one of the few examples of co-operation between the industry-focused language school sector and the professionally focused teachers’ association for 20 years. While in the 1980s and 1990s, UK-based EFL forged a cross-sectoral alliance which stormed the world with its then revolutionary communicative methodology, in recent times the industry and the profession have largely drifted apart. In the whole of the UK, only Scotland and the North of England have local teachers’ associations affiliated with iatefl.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking move behind PRELIM is the stepping away from methodology as the answer to improving English teaching in disadvantaged countries, along with the recognition that local teachers’ language levels are one of the main barriers to student language attainment in primary and secondary schools. Also, that local teachers, many of whom may not have studied English at university, gain confidence as teachers.

Iatefl’s chief executive, Jon Burton, said: “Language proficiency is an important requirement for language teachers and a lack of it can affect teachers’ confidence.”

The success of PRELIM, which is being measured carefully, will be judged on its effect on teacher confidence which, studies show, is closely correlated with teacher efficacy.

Of course, the importance of teachers’ language levels has not gone unnoticed in recent years, with country after country testing its teachers’ levels and often failing to see much progress. Countries in the developed world, especially Europe, have turned to private language schools, either local or in the English-speaking world, to boost their teachers’ levels.

Indeed, Spanish language schools report a large market among secondary school subject teachers, subsidised to study English as their school’s teachers adopted CLIL methodology. Many language schools in the UK and Ireland have welcomed European teachers looking to do the same.

Perhaps the middle-income countries will take a leaf out of their book and switch from spending money employing inexperienced native-speaking teachers in their government schools and invest it instead on sending their teachers abroad to improve their language skills.

In the near future, the biggest market for a declining adult sector may well be teaching English teachers and teachers who need to teach in English.

Participating English teachers’ associations are:

Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea Bissau, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Serbia, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

Participating English UK members:

University of Sheffield ELTC, St Clare’s Oxford, New College Group, Bell Educational Services Ltd, CELT Centres for ELT Cardiff, Language United Ltd, IH Bristol, IH London, Inlingua Cheltenham, Lewis School of English, Anglia Ruskin University, Oxford International Education Group, Peartree Language, LILA Liverpool, Centre for English Studies, Wimbledon School of English, and Celtic English Academy.

Image courtesy of TRAN PHU ON UNSPLASH
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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