Children and young teenagers under 16 years old make up a relatively small but important sector of the language travel industry. A successful language travel trip for these students can yield years and years of repeat bookings. But it is also one of the most challenging sectors for both agents and language schools.
One of the most important features of a successful junior programme provider is the ability to offer a personal service. The English Language Academy (ELA) in Sliema, Malta, offers junior courses according to age: four-to-six year olds, seven-to-10 year olds, 11-to-12 year olds and 13-to-15 year olds. During their peak summer months, up to 40 per cent of their total enrolment is made up of students under the age of 16, and numbers have been growing year on year. The school’s Manager, Louiseanne Mercieca, puts their success down to the personal touch the school offers. “There is a ‘family’ atmosphere in our school,” she says, “and the success of ELA lies in the personal attention we give our clients.”
For all responsible schools providing junior courses, ensuring the safety and welfare of young students is paramount. “I would like to think that we are meticulous in terms of adhering to the duty of care which we have as a school,” asserts Gary Maserow at Geos Perth in Australia. “Our campus lends itself to having students of this age, but as with any school, there is always a teacher on duty during break times. And, when it comes to accommodation,” he adds, “under-aged students must stay with an approved college family. Host families are required to have a ‘working with children’ card.” In countries where there are few or no regulations governing the care of international students, many schools develop their own high standards. “Although the Spanish law does not demand it, we check all host families for police records as well as inspecting them every year,” says Stephen Jenkins, Director of OISE in Spain. “We also make sure all external providers comply with the relevant health and safety legislation. All staff are given a full health and safety briefing.”
The basic recipe for a successful junior programme is a combination of classroom lessons in the morning and fun activities in the afternoon. While there are many junior courses that remain true to this, there are now also lots of other options for juniors, that differ depending on age and their requirements. Magister Academy in St Julians, Malta, for example, offers two junior programmes, one for eight-to-12 year olds and the other for 13-to-16 year olds. “For the first group, we use the ‘Disneyland’ principle: fun and enjoyment through play, music, dance, art and drama as the major channels used to help the children be interactive, interested and communicative in English,” explains the school’s General Director, Paul Fenech. “[The older teenage students] develop their language skills through role-play, simulation and lateral thinking exercises, games and activities. They are given a chance to mount an exhibition of their creative work at the end of their course.”
To ensure that the different expectations of the younger and older juniors are fulfilled, IH Malta-Gozo in Gharb has this year set up two separate centres, one for its 10-to-14 year olds and the other for the 15-to-17 year olds. As Corrine Xuereb, Principal of the school, says, “The youngsters like the sport and the 15-to-17 year olds like the evenings out and parties.”
The learning/activities balance
Of course, working in the junior sector means not only satisfying the clients but also their parents, and both might have very different expectations of a language course. On the one hand there are the summer camps, where the activities usually take up as much or more time than the classroom lessons. At Exportise in the UK, for example, the emphasis is more on the activities provided than the language, with its sports and English course for under-16 year olds comprising three hours of sports coaching and two-and-a-half hours of English tuition per day. According to Remco Weeda at Exportise, which also runs sports camps for British nationals as well as international students, the English language programme “is this year more strongly linked the sports programmes”, which “could create more demand for our courses”.
Junior summer camp providers usually offer a wide range of activities to keep their clients entertained, and these change according to demand. Stephan Roussounis, Director of The Language Explorer in Cyprus, which runs summer camps for 12-to-17 year olds in Limassol, says they have experienced increased demand from juniors for adventure sports such as scuba diving.
At the other end of the spectrum are the more academic courses for juniors. Richard Day at English in Chester in the UK has observed “increasing interest in external examinations” among junior clients, while Joel Weaver at Intercultural Communications College in Honolulu, HI, in the USA actually notes a demand from Korea for “more class time and less activities”.
Joern Hornhardt, Director of Marketing at Zoni Vancouver in Canada, says they set up their intensive summer high school preparation programme for junior students which includes 30 hours of tuition per week as a direct result of demand from parents. “While [language learning] camps have many fun activities for students, a schedule with many hours of academic instructions is something that the parents of the students have been increasingly asking for,” he asserts.
Geos Perth covers all bases with its three junior programmes; there is the intensive learning high school preparation course, the traditional study tour programme, and their young learners programme which is mid-way between the two, running in the school holidays and combining intensive English instruction with one or two excursions per week.
Another trend to emerge in the junior sector is a shift away from the big closed groups, looking for cheap, language travel packages that deliver more on experiencing another country rather than learning, as Jenkins notes. “I think clients are becoming more conscious of the need for a course which gives the students a real opportunity to develop their language skills,” he says. “Clients are now realising that this can only happen in a small group setting.”
As a consequence, OISE provides summer language programmes for 14-to-17 year olds in maximum class size of eight students. “What makes OISE [in Segovia] different is the reduced class sizes which enable students to maximise their contact with the language and a communicative approach,” says Jenkins. “Whether students are actually in the classroom participating in the leisure programme or simply enjoying the morning break in the internet room, the OISE tutors are on hand to make sure they learn to express themselves in clear confident Spanish,” he says.
In the UK, English in Chester has also changed its approach to its junior programmes for students aged between 14 and 16 years. It has shelved its courses for big groups and now specialises in junior courses for individual teenagers and mini-groups of a maximum of 12 students. Day explains the reasons behind this move. “The individual teenager is important to us and we want to ensure that they have a good experience on a course here. It is difficult to guarantee the quality of this experience if there are large groups. The mini-group policy is great and means that we have an excellent nationality mix on our vacation course.”
Within Europe, many junior language travellers have traditionally come from Western Europe, but demand has in recent years fanned out to other markets, such as Eastern Europe, the USA and Asia. At OISE in Spain, France is the major junior provider, although Jenkins reports “growing interest [in recent years] from the UK and the US as well as Germany and, increasingly, Russia.”
Day in the UK also reports that France, Russia, Spain, Italy and Japan are significant junior source markets. While he says that numbers from Russia in particular have grown as a direct result of their marketing activities, he adds that “the French market has grown as it has become easier and cheaper to fly into the region through our local airports”.
In Australia, Maserow reports that their suite of junior courses attract mainly Japanese, Koreans, Indonesians, Thailand, Taiwanese, Chinese and Vietnamese students. And although, he says, demand is “fairly stable”, he adds that it has never recovered from the 1997 Asian economic crisis. “If we compare the numbers to the late 1990s then the drop is significant,” he reports. “I don’t think Perth has quite recovered from the losses [resulting from] the Asia crisis in so far as the young learners market is concerned.”
Although most junior clients often favour destinations close to their home countries, increasingly they are travelling further. Weaver in Honolulu reports that their courses have always been popular with Japanese students, and more recently Koreans, but now they are also welcoming students from a number of European countries.
The willingness of juniors to travel further has also benefited some of the newer language travel destinations such as South Africa. Alexander Kratochwil of Good Hope Studies in Cape Town, South Africa, says that they regularly receive groups from countries as diverse as Spain, Germany, Argentina, Reunion Island and Korea, and although demand for junior courses remains low, it is “steadily increasing”, he says. South Africa’s rising popularity with younger language travellers is also evidenced in Language Travel Magazine’s Status survey statistics: in our survey of 2005 trends (see LTM, February 2007, page 45), 18 per cent of the total students enrolled at the schools that took part in the survey were aged between 16 and 18 years old, compared with only 5.5 per cent in this age group in 2004 (see LTM, February 2005, page 48).
Another indication of the increasing adventurousness of juniors and their parents is the launch by the Language Explorer of its junior programme in the new English language learning destination of Cyprus. Roussounis explains why they decided to move into the Cypriot market: “We have seen demand for an alternative to Malta, and believe that Cyprus is an exciting new alternative,” he says. “It has more sights and more capacity, enabling us to run separate [products] for junior and adult programmes.”
With juniors starting to turn to fresh new destinations, it is the established players that are feeling the pinch. Weaver in the USA believes that the reasons why their junior numbers dropped slightly last year was “probably because of competition from lower cost destinations”. Again our Status surveys confirm this trend. In the UK, 12-to-15 year olds accounted for nine per cent of enrolments in 2006 (see LTM, September 2007, page 67) compared with 23 per cent in 2005 (see LTM, June 2006, page 44), and in the USA, the percentage of 16-to-18 year olds fell from 18 per cent in 2005 (see LTM, August 2006, page 80) to seven per cent in 2006 (see LTM, October 2007, page 47).
In contrast, Australia appears to be attracting a higher proportion of young junior language learners, with under-15 year olds accounting for five per cent of total enrolments in 2006 (see LTM, July 2007, page 43) compared with less than one per cent in 2005 (see LTM, July 2006, page 46).
Despite the fact that competition in the junior sector is intensifying, most schools are upbeat about the future, with Mercieca in Malta forecasting a five-to-10 per cent increase in junior numbers in the coming year, and Day in the UK observing that demand for junior programmes, while still concentrated in the summer, is spreading to other times of the year. What is clear is that those schools that remain flexible and listen to the market can continue to compete for an important business segment.
Host family versus residential accommodation
While residential accommodation means that young children are all in one place and can be supervised together, host family accommodation provides a family atmosphere for the students, and many schools and parents still prefer this type of accommodation for juniors. “In general,” confirms Louiseanne Mercieca at English Language Academy in Sliema, Malta, “our most popular accommodation for juniors is host family, followed by school residence. This has not changed at all in recent years.”
However, other providers have observed a slight shift in demand towards residential accommodation. Keith Zammit, Director of the European School of English in Gzira, Malta, asserts, “There is more demand for residential accommodation. The junior market is seeking more independent accommodation rather than host family where certain restrictions, [such as] meal hours, curfew, free time, etc, [can] be a deterrent.”
But host family accommodation for juniors has to be of very high quality as the school must be able to guarantee the welfare of the students all the time. Magister Academy in St Julians, Malta, is very specific about what it expects from its families hosting juniors. They look for “host families with children who live within five minutes from the school”, says the school’s Paul Fenech, and if families are further away, they are paid extra to transport the children to and from school. Fenech continues, “When children are on school-organised activities, they are driven to their homes and handed over to a member of the host family. There is constant coordination with timetables. [The hosts] and school always know exactly where the children will be at all times.”
As host families are so involved in the student’s programme, it can be hard to find sufficient families in the peak months. Fenech admits that generally in Malta, there is a “great shortage” of host families for juniors.
Similarly in the USA, Joel Weaver at Intercultural Communications College in Honolulu, HI, says, “It is a struggle to retain families in the peak months. But we manage by letting our ‘one nationality per family’ standard slide.”
With very young children taking language courses overseas, there is a small but growing niche of providers who cater for both children and their parents. Agent Anne HC Tien, General Manager of Domini International Consulting Corp in Taiwan, explains, “Nowadays young kids spend their summer [and] winter vacation studying English abroad. In some circumstances, parents, especially the mother, might accompany them.”
The set-up of parent-child courses differs from one school to another. At Magister Academy in St Julians, Malta, for example, General Director, Paul Fenech says, “The most important point is that the timetables of the children coincide exactly with those of their parents. Although they study in a different section of the school and have different break times, the parents have access to their children at all times if they want. During the leisure time they have similar activities but on very close locations. Parents and children go together for the same guided tours.”
The Language Explorer in Cyprus also offers certain packages for parents and children. While the children join the summer camp, the adults can either “opt to have a beach holiday in an alternative hotel or they can have lessons in adult groups”, explains Director, Stephan Roussounis.
At Zoni in Vancouver, Canada, there are no specific parent-child courses, but Joern Hornardt, the school’s Director of Marketing, asserts that the campus is “the perfect size to split parent and child into two different programmes”.
He explains, “While the mum, for example, will take an adult course, the child will be enrolled in our youth programme just down the hallway. Both students can come to school together, meet at breaks and spend the lunch hour together. This is an option quite a few parents decide to do with their children.”