Notwithstanding the global economic crisis, the main threats to the junior language programmes market in 2010 were physical, rather than economic. Robin Adams of GV English in Canada comments that this sector is particularly vulnerable when it comes to health threats, such as Sars and the H1N1 virus, while the volcanic ash problem “definitely had an impact this summer,” according to Sabine Kalina, Operations Manager at GLS Sprachenzentrum in Germany. “Parents were worried that their children [would be] stuck in the airport,” she says, and this resulted in fewer bookings in April and May than in previous years.
Despite these negative influences, however, many language schools were able to achieve growth in their sales of programmes for young learners last year. While noting “major difficulties” in obtaining visas for Chinese students, Brigitta Alkofer of the Humboldt Institute in Germany reports an excellent year, with bookings up by more than 20 per cent. Meanwhile, Natalie Dawe, Marketing and Communications Manager at Bell International in the UK, observes that the organisation welcomed over 3,000 young learners from over 60 countries in 2010. Top five provider countries included Italy, Spain, Russia, Brazil and Germany, however, this largely mirrored nationality trends apparent in previous years, says Dawe.
For activity camp specialists, EAC part of international leisure travel group, TUI junior programmes represent approximately 80 per cent of the organisations yearly turnover. Putting it into perspective, TUI Language Marketing Director Kevin McNally, says, “Junior programmes with EAC are hugely popular, with junior student bookings having grown from 300 in 2000 to almost 17,000 in 2010”. Despite a significant increase in market share last year, however, McNally points to a decline in student numbers from some established agency partners specialising in group travel. This, he says, was almost certainly a direct result of the global economic downturn.
For some, such as Converse International School of Languages (CISL) in the USA, new markets have been opening up, and CISL’s Junior & Study Tour Programmes Manager, Francine Chemnick, highlights growing interest from Eastern Europe, as well as Saudi Arabia, Israel and China. Likewise, at Taupo Language in New Zealand, Director Mary-Rose Blackley has seen a rise in interest from China, Saudi Arabia and South America, although, she notes, this has been countered by a decrease from Korea and Japan.
In the UK, Eastbourne’s Language Teaching Centre (LTC) experienced “considerable growth”, says Principal, Paul Clark, although this came alongside a slight tendency towards shorter courses, especially in the Italian market, and also in the UK, Harrow House International College chalked up a nine per cent increase. Meanwhile, having opened a new summer camp every year since the launch of its first camp in 2005, chain school St Giles International, announced the launch of its tenth venue, a new 2011 programme on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, Canada. The range of camps, which typically cater for students aged between eight and 18, attract a wide selection of students but, says Rachel Bell, Sales & Marketing Executive, there is good representation from Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. “We had 57 nationalities in total across our camps [in 2010], and the top nationality, Italy, had just 15 per cent so that gives you an indication of how good the mix is,” she observes.
While noting that the economic recession has affected demand from some government-sponsored groups, in particular, Mike Trewern, Director of Summer Schools at Embassy Global, UK, makes the observation that the weakness of sterling has otherwise, in fact, stimulated demand. “Overall, I would say the junior market worldwide is still growing,” he concludes, “driven by the need to learn the English language and the relative affordability of the product on offer.” Bell concurs, adding that the junior market is “perhaps more resilient to economic difficulties, because parents are even more committed to their children’s education as they want to give them the best start for the future”.
One area where demand seems to be continuing to increase is at the younger end of the junior age spectrum. “In the last couple of years, we have noticed a significant change in the age at which children are sent to study abroad,” comments Romanian agent, Daniela Pavoni, General Manager at Mirunette International Education. “If, before 2008, the minimum age was nine and the average around 13, now we’ve enrolled more and more children aged six and seven; also the average age of the children has decreased to 10-11 years.”
Maria Holovko, PR Manager at the Ukrainian-based DEC Educational Consultancy, has observed a similar trend, commenting, “If [we] compare with previous years, when the age of our clients was 12 years old and older, this year we had even seven-year-old clients.”
Also seeing a greater number of requests for children from the age of 10, Sabine Steinacher of Augsburger Deutschkurse (ADK) in Germany, comments, “It seems that learning languages is becoming more important, even in elementary school.”
While some language schools only accept junior students over a certain age often around 13 to 14 others have been happy to accommodate the growing number of applications for children below high school age. According to Terry Falck at UK-based Harrow House International College, more younger students are enrolling on the school’s Young Learner course for six-to-11 year olds. However, this is more popular, he notes, with certain nationalities than others. “Russians tend to send kids who are eight, nine [or] 10, for two to four weeks, where Italians or Spanish, for example, would be very unlikely to send them at that age at all,” he explains. Louiseanne Mercieca from English Language Academy (ELA) in Malta, also notes a nationality bias in the increased demand for places for younger children, observing that this is a trend mainly prevalent among the Eastern European market.
At GLS in Germany, where the minimum age is set at eight years for its Berlin and Munich Young and Fun camps, Kalina reports that approximately 10 per cent of the participants today are as young as this. She adds that the school does sometimes receive requests for six and seven-year olds, “but then the parents mostly want to come with them and do a German course as well,” she says.
The market for parent and child programmes is a growing one. Indeed, at Clubclass English Language School in Malta, this has been the most popular course for juniors over the past year, observes Sales and Marketing Executive, Caroline Castillo. Although the minimum age at Embassy Global is eight (offered only at selected centres), here, too, Trewern reports a small, but growing, trend for parents to accompany younger children, “either as tourists, or to take a course themselves.” At ELA in Malta, this has become a “thriving market”, catered for by parent and child mini-courses, according to Mercieca. Meanwhile, Taupo Language in New Zealand is also tapping into this market. Although its minimum age is 13 since, as Blackley explains, children below that age do not fit the equipment or skill level required for its activity programme it is offering a course where the parent studies there, while the child or children attend nearby Waipahihi School. The Humboldt Institute has also added a course for accompanying parents of children aged between eight and 12. Parents are offered separate German lessons and a separate afternoon programme, as well as separate accommodation on the same campus, reports Alkofer.
Even among education providers that focus on teen students, rather than pre-teens, there are indications of a tendency to begin study-abroad programmes at a younger age. Hence, to reflect current demand, Chemnick reports that CISL has recently changed the age range catered for by its Junior and Study Tour programmes from 15-18 to 14-17.
Safety and welfare have always been a high priority for parents in the choice of junior programmes. According to Pavoni, this aspect of provision is taken into account in choice of location and attention to feedback from previous participants; sometimes their concern is such that they will even visit the location themselves before sending their children, she reports. Parents insist on having 24-hour supervision by qualified staff, seven days a week, adds Olivier Paul, Manager of French agency, Admirative I Am Séjours Linguistiques. “They are also wary about curfew rules, and do ask lots of questions on the activities: [their] nature, number of kids involved [and] staff-to-student ratio.”
As the average age of children participating in junior programmes grows younger, some providers have been noticing a parallel increase in parents’ attention to detail regarding these issues. One area that is receiving more attention, according to Belén Simavilla Roque of Instalaciones y Turismo Joven in Spain, is the transfer upon arrival, while concerns over safety and comfort have led to a growing preference for accommodation in high-standard halls of residence, “which guarantee their safety, control and comfort.”
At International House, Malta-Gozo, Director of Studies, Richard Twigg comments that, since the launch of its first Junior and Teens programme in 2005, his school has always focused on providing a full programme in a safe environment, with its staff present with the students at all times. “Back then,” he says, “agents felt we were a bit too strict, but now that parents are searching for a programme on which their children are well taken care of, we feel that we are a step ahead of the rest.”
According to Dawe at Bell, student care is an area in which the school prides itself on and she details that for every six students there is one dedicated member of staff tending to their needs, including, she adds, “dedicated houseparents responsible for the welfare of students in each accommodation block”.
“Welfare certainly has become more of a priority with parents than a few years ago,” confirms Trewern in the UK, “and it is something that we, as a company, spend more and more time and resources on.” For example, he says that risk assessments for all aspects of the summer programme are now carried out in detail, and acted upon. However, parental attitudes, do vary, he adds: “We also get a significant number of ‘parental consent’ letters, requesting that children, even as young as 14, be allowed out by themselves, often in London, and even at night. This, of course, is not something we can agree to.”
One consequence of increasing parental concern with the safety aspects of their children’s trip has been a tendency to seek programmes in quieter, safer areas. “I know this is a great selling point for us,” comments Falck, whose school is located in the west of England town of Swanage.
In Malta, this trend has encouraged Maltese language schools to move their junior programmes out of the busy St Julian’s and Paceville areas to quieter locations. According to Castillo, agents in particular from Russia and Italy have been seeking programmes away from these areas. Hence, for 2011, Clubclass is launching a new all-inclusive programme in Paradise Bay, Mellieha, as well as a group programme in Swieqi. Meanwhile, says spokesperson, Rebecca Brincat, BELS has also expanded its junior provision into Mellieha, with a new programme launched there in 2010, providing 24-hour supervision, with host family accommodation.
With parents looking for their children to be occupied around the clock, providers are also experiencing greater demand for additional courses and/or activities to supplement the core programme. “This year,” says Brincat, “we sold quite a few add-on water sports programmes, and this was a first.” Alkofer in Germany has seen a similar development. As she reports: “Even though we offer a fantastic and very varied leisure-time programme, with many different activities and sports to choose from every day, there seems to be a tendency to also book (or expect) additional courses, like horseback riding or tennis lessons.” Several of the school’s centres offer a range of add-on activities, and these have been very popular, she adds. In the UK, LTC has responded by providing more activities including inflatables, such as bucking broncos and bungee runs at its Young Learner Summer School.
At the same time, some agents are picking up on a growing interest in a more academic programme for younger learners. Holovko notes that academic English is becoming very popular, especially one-to-one tuition in the teacher’s home, while Pavoni highlights a number of requests for academic programmes, especially from parents who want their children to continue their education in the UK.
These trends are reflected in demand at GV English in Canada. “I would say that we are definitely hearing the parents prefer to send their teens to a more academically challenging programme,” Adams asserts, “especially one that can offer an internationally-recognised certification.” In line with this trend, Embassy UK has introduced a new, semi-intensive refresher course for students who have been preparing for the FCE exam, which, according to Trewern, is likely to attract students in their mid-teens. Harrow House, meanwhile, has begun offering Junior English plus Academic Activities, which combines language learning with courses in culture, local history, literature and natural history. While Bell International has designed tailor-made Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) courses for school groups. “We welcomed a school group for the third year in a row on a specially designed course which combines English language learning with subject tuition,” explains Dawe.
Among other new programme launches such as the Humboldt Institute’s German Plus Soccer programme and GLS Sprachenzentrum’s Berlin Riverside Camp there has been an emphasis on activities. Another is the new Summer Camps programme at Spanish language school, Instalaciones y Turismo Joven. This includes the presence of young Spanish guides to accompany the participants during all their activities, explains Roque, giving them the chance to improve their Spanish conversational skills outside the classroom.
Product launches such as these at this time demonstrate the faith providers have in the future of young learner programmes. As Falck observes, “The junior market is very strong if you have the right product.”
While demand for junior programmes around the world has generally been on the increase, despite the tougher economic climate, there are a number of regulatory changes, either in the pipeline or recently implemented, that are likely to have an impact on language schools in the countries concerned.
One development is a clarification in New Zealand’s immigration policy this year, which states that permission to enroll and/or accommodate students between the ages of 11 and 13 years without parental supervision must be approved by the Code of Practice Administrator. Also, students under the age of 10 studying in New Zealand can no longer be included on a group visa and must instead be treated as an individual student. Under the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students, participating schools are required to “communicate regularly” with parents of children under the age of 18 years who are in their care.
In Malta, meanwhile, a planned new tax on the booking of hotel beds is set to have an impact on the profitability of the 2011 season for some language schools. “If the government [imposes] the bed…tax, this will affect many a provider adversely,” comments Rebecca Brincat at BELS, “as prices have [already] been issued [for 2011], but the tax or the promise of its implementation has been hanging over our heads for some months now, and, if it come into effect, a lot of schools will have to absorb it.”
Furthermore, the UK market is waiting to hear the outcome of a review of its new Vetting and Barring Scheme. This scheme, which was due to have come into effect in July 2010, was to have introduced the voluntary registration of new employees and job movers working or volunteering with children and vulnerable adults. However, it was suspended last summer, to allow the government to remodel the scheme, following criticism that it was “overly burdensome” and has yet to be relaunched. How the remodelled scheme will affect language schools working within the junior sector of the language travel market remains to be seen.
In the junior market, residential accommodation appears to be gaining in popularity over the traditional host family. According to Sabine Kalina, Operations Manager at GLS Sprachenzentrum in Berlin, Germany, this trend reflects the preference of the students themselves, rather than their parents or teachers. “Most parents still prefer host family accommodation for their kids,” she explains, “but the kids want to be with friends their age, day and night, so they want to be accommodated in a residence.”
At fellow German language school, the Humboldt Institute, this preference is shared by the management, in the belief that living together in this way helps to build a feeling of togetherness and “feeling part of the international Humboldt family”. Mindful of the perennial criticism that staying in a residence can lead to students mixing primarily with those of their own nationality and, hence, failing to practise their language skills sufficiently, the Humboldt Institute has taken some simple steps. According to spokesperson, Brigitta Alkofer, the school always ensures that, when two or more students share a room, they always have a very similar level of German, are of similar age and do not speak the same mother tongue.
Ukrainian agent, Maria Holovko, PR Manager at DEC Educational Consultancy in Kiev, is convinced that residential accommodation is better for her Ukrainian students. Meanwhile, for Olivier Paul, Manager of Admirative I Am Séjours Linguistiques agency in France, residence accommodation has a number of advantages, in that it “provides a single framework for the kid to adapt to (versus two when in homestay). It avoids travelling back and forth from campus to host family, it allows the staff to exert a more complete control over the child; it allows the child to stay 24/7 with the friends he’s made (versus being separated for the evening and weekends, when in homestay).” He adds, “Parents seem to think that homestay is better, mostly because they fantasise on the role of host families, which they tend to picture as substitute parents… We often have to argue with them that this is not really the case, and that residential accommodation is most of the time better.”
Despite this argument, host family accommodation continues to be strongly advocated. At Melton College in the UK, this is the only accommodation option offered to juniors, and, says Principal, Andrew Hjort, “I believe the level of care provided by a good homestay will be hard to beat.” Similarly, at Augsburger Deutschkurse (ADK) in Germany, “We [only] offer homestay with German host families,” comments spokesperson, Sabine Steinacher, “We think that this is the best opportunity to speak German, even after class. It is our decision not to offer residence, because students will always find a way to speak their mother language or use English as a lingua franca both not very helpful in a German course!”
While the advantages and disadvantages of both options will, doubtless, continue to be debated, the decision will often come down to a financial one. At GV English in Canada, where both are on offer, spokesman, Robin Adams, notes, “While residential accommodation seems to be the preferred option, price often mitigates the need for alternative accommodation and parents/agents revert to homestay.”