January 2003 issue

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New generation

The traditional formula for junior language programmes, which is a combination of learning with a full timetable of recreational activities, has generally remained the same for years. However, although this framework remains the blueprint for most junior courses, the needs of young students have changed. As a result, a new generation of junior programmes is arriving on the market. Gillian Evans reports.

As the junior sector of the language travel market has matured, the range of courses on offer to young learners has expanded - with more academic courses and parent-child programmes entering the sector in recent years - but the key to a successful junior programme remains the same: keeping students busy. Of the five junior courses run by Harrow House International Colleges in the UK, which takes students from the age of eight upwards, Director, Stephen a'Barrow, says, 'Our most popular and longest-running course is our junior English and sports course. Its popularity is due to the fact that the students are occupied throughout the day, seven days a week, in a wide variety of activities.'

Operating successful junior courses is quite a feat as schools must satisfy the desire of the students - whose main criterion is often to have a fun vacation away from their parents - with the parents' expectations of a good educational course in a safe environment. To ensure an effective yet fun language learning experience, Escuela International in Spain offers courses for 14-to-18 year olds during July and August, in which lessons concentrate on the practical use of the language and encourage students to practise what they have learnt outside the classroom. 'The practical activities portion of this course is designed to reinforce the grammar and vocabulary being learned [in classes] by taking the students and placing them in everyday situations outside of the classroom, including visits to local stores, supermarkets, historical buildings, parks and other parts of the city,' says Midori Ishizaka at the school.

Course types
Junior courses come in all different shapes and sizes, from closed groups of students accompanied by a teacher or agent, through classes made up of individuals, to holiday camps with native speakers of the target language. At Cavilam in France, Myriam Baba explains that 11-to-16 year olds from all over the world can take part in a 'campus-style stay with sports and leisure activities in the company of French teenagers'. Similarly, Enforex in Spain offers summer camp programmes for six-to-18 year olds, which, according to Domenico Oppizzio at the school, are 'a combination of Spanish or English language courses and a full schedule of sports, excursions and leisure activities'. He continues, 'All this takes place in an international atmosphere in which more than 60 per cent of the participants are Spanish students.'

Some schools, such as St Paul's International School in Australia, organise closed-group programmes for young students. 'St Paul's offers study tour programmes for younger students, aged from 10 to 16,' explains Debbie Hansen, Director of Studies. 'These group programmes are arranged to suit the client group, whether they be interested in computer learning, art and music, English language, interaction with Aussie students, outdoor activities, [etc].'

The growing trend in the language travel market towards clear academic objectives is mirrored in the junior sector, with some schools reporting increasing demand for serious language programmes with definitive goals. John Tauplin, Director of Shane Global Village (SGV) in Calgary, Canada, which runs a four-week Cambridge preparation course for teenagers, notes that there has been growing interest in the Cambridge exam, especially in Brazil, and this has resulted in more school groups at their centre.

Going overseas for high school education has also led to the proliferation in some countries of high school preparation programmes for juniors. Marilyn Maserow, of Geos Perth-St Mark's International College in Australia, says, 'All the students attending English for academic purposes courses [at St Mark's] are aged between 12 and 17, and most of them intend undertaking secondary education in Australia. St Mark's provides these students with specialised English preparation that is specifically geared to meet the demands of high school [education] in Australia.'

The trend towards high school placements overseas is propelling demand from juniors in a number of countries, in particular Korea. According to the Korea Times, 203,000 children under the age of 15 went overseas for studies between July and September 2001 (see Language Travel Magazine, December 2002, page 4). Meanwhile in Europe, there is a drive in many countries for languages to be taught at a younger age in state primary schools, which in turn is fuelling demand for language travel programmes from younger and younger learners. Marina Cuervo, of Europa Plus Idiomas agency in Spain, confirms this trend. '[Children] learn languages in school [in Spain] when they are six,' she says. 'This has increased demand [for language travel programmes]. One of the reasons is that English is compulsory when you have to do the selectividad [university entrance exam].'

Younger and younger
Another knock-on effect of language learning being introduced at a younger age in state schools is that, in general, children who attend language programmes overseas, particularly those enrolled on English courses, often have a high level of the language before they start. 'We have noticed an improvement in the level of English from juniors from a number of the established markets,' confirms a'Barrow. 'This is no doubt linked to changes in curriculum back home and an increased awareness that English is not an option but an essential prerequisite for the future.'

But the trend towards learning a language at a younger age is not limited to English language courses. '[We are getting] more and more younger [students] because they want to learn languages as soon as possible,' reports Baba at Cavilam in France. Even study destinations that are relatively far for language students to travel to are experiencing rising demand for courses from juniors. 'We are amazed at how young some of the students in the [closed] groups are - as young as nine,' exclaims Stella Doubleday, Co-Director of Southern Lakes English College in New Zealand.

As the language learning requirements of juniors become more refined and take on a more serious edge, distance, it seems, is no longer such as issue. As a consequence, junior providers throughout the world are experiencing a greater spread of student nationalities. A'Barrow confirms this. 'The largest percentage of our junior students come from Europe,' he reports. 'Traditionally this has meant the biggest markets were Italy, Germany, France and Spain. However, in recent years, no one group of nationalities has dominated as we have seen a large increase in junior students from Central and Eastern Europe. We now have junior students from every country in Europe and we also receive juniors from South and Central America as well as from Asia.'

Francois Pfeiffer at Accord in France says, 'We now have groups from Japan, Korea and the Philippines - this is a major event for us.'

The trend towards younger students and the willingness of these students to travel further afield has resulted in more parents accompanying their offspring overseas. This, in turn, has led to the proliferation of courses designed specifically for parents and their children. SGV in Vancouver launched its Kids Activity Programme last summer for children aged between eight and 12 and their parents. 'The kids and parents study in separate classes in the morning and are brought together for activities and excursions in the afternoons,' explains the school's Director, Paul Maher. 'The kids and parents stay in the same host family with full board and commute together to their campus.'

In France, Accord has also set up a parent-child programme. 'The summer course at [our] Saint-Nicolas summer campus is now becoming very popular as it allows parents to come and stay with their kids at the same residence and they follow the course adapted to their needs, levels, etc, with no mix between the children and adults,' says Pfeiffer.

Good behaviour
Inevitably, junior students suffer more than adults from problems such as homesickness and difficulty adapting to a new culture. 'The reoccurring problem with juniors is the lack of flexibility they have to adapt to new situations - cultural, food, human relations - and therefore they call their families for all types of trifles,' confirms Franco Rossi from AP Educational agency in Italy. 'We make extensive use of the telephone to talk [to them], to reassure them, untie any 'knots', and encourage and spur them on to try harder.'

Closed groups accompanied by an agent or teacher can lessen these types of problems. 'In all my groups, there is a group leader from Brazil which helps a lot - good communication [while overseas] and good orientation before they leave Brazil,' says Fred Chiderolli Tiba, Director of Educnet agency in Brazil.

For their part, schools have to ensure that students are under constant supervision and that there are procedures in place to deal with those who do not follow school rules. 'Most students behave well but sometimes some students try to enjoy their freedom too much away from their parents for the first time,' says Ishizaka. 'In those cases we work together with the host families to control [the student's] behaviour outside the school and are in close contact with the parents of the students. The close monitoring and the contact between four parts - the school, host family, parents and the student - are the key points to successful junior courses.'

Nick Wright of SGV in the UK says they try to pre-empt any problems that may arise concerning bad behaviour. 'This means having [the] parents' address and telephone number and a written agreement from the parents that, if their child breaks any of the rules in our contract they will be subject to certain disciplinary procedures. The final step is being sent home. The juniors are told about this on their first day. Generally, this level of preparation beforehand prevents any serious problems.'

Junior challenge
Dealing with juniors - from both an agent and school's point of view - is not easy, as Maher freely admits. 'Quality junior programmes are demanding work. They involve a great deal of planning, overseas communication, detail in management and constant concern for the safety and welfare of the students.'

In New Zealand, the government introduced a Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students last year. These strict guidelines, which also lay out special provision for juniors, have deterred some providers from operating in this sector. James Upton of Nelson English Centre in New Zealand, which does not generally accept under-18 year olds, says the code has galvanised their decision not to enter the junior sector. 'The new code of practice has made the matter clearer than ever as it is administratively time-consuming to have under-18s,' he says.

But the rewards for both agents and education institutions that operate in the junior sector of the market are substantial, particularly with regards to repeat bookings. At Harrow House Colleges, for example, the student return rate on junior courses is 'in excess of 40 per cent', says a'Barrow. Brooke McKenzie, Director of Spires International Homeschool in New Zealand, which has only been in operation since April 2001, reports, 'We [have welcomed] many children back for the second, third and even fourth time since we started.'

Explaining the high level of repeat bookings that are generated from the junior market, Ishizaka says, 'When the students go home satisfied, the parents want to send them again to the same place which the students know and where they are confident, and also the parents have more confidence.'

'Juniors like to repeat [their course] at the same place, [whereas] adults prefer to change [schools] even if they enjoyed it,' confirms Mariuccia Ancona Lopez of Pressto agency in Brazil.

And as juniors grow up, agencies can benefit from their business as adults with the different requirements this might entail, as Isabelle von Erlach from Follow Me agency in Switzerland, reports. 'Typically, a junior will take part in the junior programmes for one to two years and then switch to the adult programmes,' she says.

Safe and sound

Understandably, within the language travel market, the junior sector is one of the most sensitive to outside factors, which may jeopardise the safety of the students. For example, when mad cow disease and then foot and mouth disease in the UK hit the headlines, it was the junior language travel sector that suffered the most, as concerned parents sent their children elsewhere. Surprisingly perhaps, the aeroplane hijackings in the USA on September 11 2001, which resulted in an immediate downturn in demand for air travel and lower student numbers at many language schools throughout the world (see Language Travel Magazine, December 2002, pages 21-25), had little effect on the junior market. However, this had more to do with timing than anything else, says Isabelle von Erlach from Follow Me agency in Switzerland. 'We did not feel a decrease in interest or bookings for the junior market after September 11, 2001 [because] most junior bookings [we] get during January and April.'

By this time, consumer confidence in travel was returning. However, Anja Jaensch of OISE Sprachtraining in Germany says that although junior numbers have remained strong, it is the mode of travel that has changed. 'A lot more [of our] students in recent years used to travel by plane whereas in summer 2002 a high percentage of our juniors travelled by train or were accompanied by their parents,' she recounts.

Safety is the major issue in the junior market, with schools having to ensure students are safe and their parents are comfortable with the arrangements. 'From the moment they arrive, our students are looked after by [our] trained staff [and] a high level of supervision is maintained throughout the course,' says Jaensch.

Activities are usually supervised by activity specialists, while many schools, such as Southern Lakes English College in New Zealand, provide their own transportation for students. 'We have our own buses that transport the students from their homestay to the college and back each day,' says Stella Doubleday at the school. '[The students] don't go on public transport and are accompanied by our staff at all times.'

With safety being a top feature of this market, agents have a vital role to play, as they can deal with parents' concerns and ensure that students are thoroughly briefed on what to expect, thereby minimising any potential problems.

'Before purchasing the course, parents spend lots of hours talking to me or my staff,' says Mariuccia Ancona Lopez at Pressto agency in Brazil. 'We go into all the details, from where [the student] will be, the climate, clothes, things to do, content of classes, how to behave and, obviously, content of the course.'

Schools acknowledge the importance of agents when dealing with the junior market. '[Agents] provide direct contact for parents and students in their own countries. This helps parents to feel assured they are getting sufficient and appropriate information and support,' confirms Paul Maher of Shane Global Village in Canada. 'The agents also provide important feedback to the school on the parents' expectations, problems and concerns. This is vital to the smooth and successful running of these courses.'

Domenico Oppizzio, at Enforex in Spain, adds, 'Nearly all [our] bookings are made through agencies. For juniors, they are the natural local contact.'

Stephen a'Barrow, of Harrow House in the UK, stresses that the personal service provided by agents is a major selling point over other enrolment methods. 'Agents provide 95 per cent of our junior student recruitment and are likely to continue to do so,' he says. 'Parents want reassurance that the place they are sending their children to is safe, well organised, the children properly supervised and that everyone knows what they are doing. This is difficult if not impossible to glean from a website.' However, having to provide such a detailed service means that agents must know a school well. On-site visits can therefore be very beneficial to agents, as Lopez stresses. 'Agents must visit the schools to know clearly what they are offering. I've been investing a lot in visits and I do not regret it,' she says.

Where to live

One of the major issues in the junior sector of the language travel market is whether host family or residential accommodation is best for young learners. On the one hand, host families can offer parents the peace of mind that their children are being looked after within a family. 'We have found that individuals and, in fact, groups of students prefer homestay because it is a family environment and one that they identify with,' says Nick Wright, Director of Shane Global Village in the UK. 'Often we are able to place juniors with families with similarly-aged children, which generally leads to a lot of fun.'

To ensure their host families are committed to the job, Oise Sprachtraining in Germany pays them more for looking after juniors. In addition, says Anja Jaensch at the school, 'We issue special guidelines to families who host junior students.'

When host families are looking after younger, potentially vulnerable students, they often require police or social services vetting, although regulations in many countries remain patchy and are not always compulsory. In New Zealand, however, the government's new Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students, which outlines special provision for under- 18 year olds, and the detailed International Student Homestay Guidelines, provide strict regulations for the host family provision of juniors. Stella Doubleday, of Southern Lakes English College in New Zealand, says that, as stipulated in the guidelines, 'All our homestays are police vetted and known personally to us.'

Although host family accommodation may offer the security of family accommodation, some schools maintain that they can supervise juniors more closely and ensure quality care more successfully in their own residential accommodation. 'To be able to take care of all the questions of security and control, and to be able to control the kids all the time, we don't have programmes for [juniors] with host family accommodation,' explains François Pfeiffer of Accord school in France.

According to Stephen a'Barrow of Harrow House International Colleges in the UK, which offers both residential and host family accommodation to juniors, residential is the most popular choice, especially for very young students. 'Parents prefer this because they feel this is the safest option with the greatest supervision. Students like it because they don't have to walk to school, because they are immediately and fully immersed into college life and generally find it quicker and easier to make friends.'

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