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The student on your doorstep

The chaos of Covid-19 is not unprecedented. Ron Ragsdale and Melanie Butler examine the options

On 5 Oct 1918, faced with the Spanish flu pandemic, the mayor of Portland, in Ron’s home state of Oregon, closed “schools, churches, lodges … and places of amusement.” Meanwhile, Melanie’s grandmother was wearing a mask as she travelled to her job in the West End, passing the London School of English.

As we go to press, the London School of English, founded in 1912, is opening its doors. Covid-19 has been tough on schools, all types of schools: state schools, private schools, the new international school down the road and the old local language school round the corner.

A few language schools have closed: at least 15 in the US (see page 6) one in Malta (page 7) and 15 in the UK, including the London School of English branch in Canterbury (page 13).

Some 25 British independent schools have closed, including, as we report on page 12, King’s College St Michael’s, part of the Inspired Education chain of international schools.

Why are we talking about international schools? Local language schools from Barcelona to Bahrain know why. The top end of the young learners’ market is now less about learning English and more about learning in English. The super-rich send their kids abroad to school, the affluent go to the local international school.

“It is not as if English-speaking countries are not full of non-native 
speakers wanting and needing to improve their English.”

Bad news not just for the local language school but also for the anglo-sphere summer schools whose English lessons and jolly activities no longer suffice.

International schools, argues Robert Phillipson, the author of Linguistic Imperialism, on page 36, are the new educational colonisers.

Hamish Chalmers, the language researcher and former international school teacher we interview on page 38, worries less about the politics and more about student outcomes. Hamish specialises in evidence-based education research and his work suggests that although good evidence is hard to find, where non-native students share an L1, using it in class can lead to better outcomes.

International schools moved to recruit locals following the 2008 financial crash, as we report on page 14. As expatriate families went home, schools turned to their domestic market to fill the gaps.

Language schools in English-speaking countries would do well to follow their lead.

“But we don’t have a domestic market,” the cry goes up from Boston, Brighton and Brisbane. “We rely on internationals students.”

Time to spread your risk.

Many schools have switched to online and some, like IH London’s young learners summer school, have made a success of it (see page 23). IH schools in the UK have never relied entirely on language travel— teacher training and foreign languages for locals helps spread the risk.

Besides, it is not as if English-speaking countries are not full of non-native speakers wanting and needing to improve their English.

Take the UK. It has 90,000 foreign au pairs, here to learn English – but not in language schools. Nearly 20 per cent of all children in UK schools have English as a second language, and many have EFL tutors from the £2 billion tutorial industry – but not from language schools.

And this year, 300,000 UK residents will go to a Secure English Language Test Centre like the ones run by Trinity College (see page 46). Language schools run courses for these exams. Most don’t, or won’t, enrol local students.

English may be the global language, but you know what they say in marketing: “think global, act local.”

Image courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo
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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