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Time to go back to the school room

As adult language schools crash across the world, Ron Ragsdale and Melanie Butler argue that Covid-19 has served to speed up inevitable market changes

Perhaps the most eye-catching story in this month’s issue is the slashing of the largest British-owned language school chain, Instil Education. As we report on page 7, they have closed ten operations and merged two Cambridge schools and two summer schools.

It’s a dramatic story and a sad one. But not, in our opinion, the most significant news this month.

Instead, we lead with the news that from 2024, the English language will become an optional part of the Pisa tests for 15-16-year-olds, the benchmark for measuring a nation’s educational success. English is now officially a core subject, as important in the world of modern education as reading, maths and science, and it’s a subject children will be expected to be proficient in before they leave school.

The importance of the market for English in national school systems is hardly news. In 2002, Ron took up a new role for Cambridge University Press, setting up a Schools ELT publishing programme, at around the same time Cambridge Assessment started repackaging its main suite for schools, and governments started adopting them. The adult market for general English is no longer the mainstay of publishers or exam boards, and outside the programmes for adult migrants, like the one in Australia featured on page 6, it is no longer a major concern for governments.

“There is still an adult market for general English, but it is smaller and 
less wealthy than before.”

Governments care about English in schools. In Saudi Arabia, they’re planning on introducing it in year 1, as we report on page 8, along with Taiwan debating bilingual schools and the Indian government backtracking on its policy to banish English in primary.

Meanwhile, state governments across the US will be celebrating the Chicago study we feature on page 10, which found 76 per cent of migrant children with L2 English do as well in school, or even better, than their native-speaker peers.

The majority of the language schools in trouble around the world, be that the Wall Street chain (see page 13) or the UK’s ‘zombie’ schools (page 15), specialise in adult learners. The schools pulling ahead, like the new British Summer School brand on page 12, are those offering English and education to under-18s.

Even the threadbare, thirty-year-old communicative methodology, designed to be taught by native speaker teachers to low-level European adults is being called into question. Materials from overseas swept the board at the ELTon awards (page 16), while on page 34, Paula Rebolledo calls for her colleagues to question the relevance of the white western gurus.

Coronavirus didn’t cause the move towards under-18s or boost the demand for English-medium schools, but it has speeded up the change. Of the 32 UK language schools that have so far closed down, only one was a junior summer school.

There is still an adult market for general English, but it is smaller and less wealthy than before. Without the work rights specifically denied in the new UK visa rules (page 14) many students will go elsewhere.

Look at the operations that remain after the bloodbath at Instil Education, and we can see where the future is leading in the UK. From 20 operations, we now have four adult schools, one attached to a high school, a year-round residential school for young learners, a junior summer school group and a big-name teacher training centre.

A taste of things to come?

Image courtesy of SUSAN YIN / 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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