While many other industries are battening down the hatches to weather the storm of economic uncertainty, language schools around the world are expanding their offerings in the buoyant junior language teaching sector. According to Máximo Sepúlveda Ramos at Jefe de Área de Cursos de Idiomas in Spain, “Students under 16 years [of age] are travelling abroad more than ever.” This notion is shared by Carolyn Llewelyn at the Oxford International Study Centre in the UK, who highlights this sector’s growth potential, “The junior market is predicted to be the fastest growing sector in the next ten years.”
Indeed, Clas Huntebrinker, President of Camber College in Canada, which runs summer and winter junior programmes, reports record numbers of juniors at the college last year. While a strong network of overseas study abroad advisors and a robust marketing campaign are certainly helping propel growth in the junior sector, the general economic uncertainty is also, rather surprisingly, boosting demand in some cases. “Parents are more and more conscious of the need of their children to learn another language [as young as possible],” says Patricia Downey at Instituto San Fernando in Spain.
Christopher Retallack at SUL Language Schools in the UK, agrees, adding that destinations such as London are particular popular. “It seems that in a recession students and their parents are increasingly keen to maximise the benefits of a trip to England by ensuring they get to visit premium tourist locations [such as London], as well as learn English,” he asserts.
Ian Pratt at Lexis English in Australia observes that even the sky-high value of the Australian dollar has not dampened junior demand. “Parents are looking for quality programmes where their children will be well looked after; students are looking for fun and adventure. As long as you can meet both of these needs, it seems that people are willing to pay no matter what the economy is doing,” he says.
Juniors are not only expecting fun in the sun during their language course, but, like their parents, are increasingly looking for courses with more specific goals (see box overleaf). Carla Rasmussen, International Marketing Representative at the English Language Programme at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, observes that their high school preparation course is becoming popular as a means to boost the students’ English performance at their high schools in their home countries and to provide an advantage in their future academic and career pursuits.
David Maguire, Director of International Marketing at the Global Language Institute in the USA, believes that junior study abroad experiences can also be valuable tools to give students a taster of studying in that country. “We foresee many more families taking advantage of the opportunity to send their children abroad at a young age in order to acclimatise them to the experience of studying away from home, give them an opportunity to sample different locations and institutions, and help them develop the skills they will need if and when they make a longer-term commitment to study abroad,” he says.
Hannah Buckland, Sales & Marketing Executive at Klub Group in the UK, adds that although many people are tightening their purse strings, a junior course is often seen as a good way of maximising their spend. “Parents feel that if they cannot afford a family holiday then they are still giving their children one [by sending them on a junior language programme].”
One area, however, where the recession has hit the junior market hardest is in the closed group sector, as Carolina Penacho Pascual at Mester Spanish Language Courses in Spain observes. “A lot of colleges and high schools have stopped receiving financial support and they have been forced to cancel language trips to Spain,” she relates.
On the up
On the whole, however, student numbers in the junior sector have remained healthy. Jackie Verrall at English Language Homestay in the UK says, “ was our busiest year since we started and we are already 75 per cent booked for 2012 by agents who sent juniors to us last year.”
A similar experience is reported by David Charnaud, Centre Director at International House New York in the USA, where around 40 per cent of their annual intake is aged 16 and under. He says their numbers have increased “as we form partnerships with more and more quality agents and add new clients to our repeat groups”. According to Charnaud, 2011 was “around four times busier than 2010”.
In the UK, tighter visa regulations for adults has led some centres to focus more on junior provision. At the Language Teaching Centre in the UK, for example, junior numbers have increased, which Principal, Paul Clark, puts down to the “problems with adult visas which have forced us to take more young learners”. In Canada, new visa requirements have also affected junior demand, but this time by hampering enrolments from Mexico, according to Patrik Simunec at MWS Student Camps in Canada.
While the overall picture for the junior market was positive, a closer look at individual nationalities reveals a mixed picture. “One or two smaller agents failed to produce any students this summer but at the same time we gained new agents from new and existing markets,” comments Buckland. “The troubles in Egypt at the beginning of the year threatened to have an effect on our numbers but last minute bookings from our agent there helped cushion the anticipated loss. The weakened pound against the Euro helped things to a certain degree too.”
Jeda Higgs, Operations Manager for Junior Summer Courses North America at St Giles, says they experienced a slight drop in Japanese junior numbers because of the tsunami and its effects last year, while demand from China increased, as well as students from “new to us” countries such as Romania, Israel, Slovakia and Tunisia.
But enrolments from some of the established junior markets remain a little shaky. Retallack in the UK says they are receiving more enquiries year-on-year from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Turkey as well as their traditional markets like France and Spain, but he continues, “Although our overall numbers held up, the picture was mixed with some European countries unaffected by the global downturn, for example France, while others were clearly struggling to provide the numbers they had expected, such as Spain and the Czech Republic.”
Clark highlights the economic uncertainty among the European Union countries as having the biggest effect on junior numbers this year. “The big question is how is the Eurozone crisis going to affect our big markets in Spain and Italy,” he observes.
However, on the upside, many new markets are developing, with junior providers the world over reporting growing numbers from China, Russia and Latin America. What’s more, juniors are travelling further from their home countries. Javier Menéndez at Aston Languages, which organises junior courses in Barcelona and Mallorca, reports that one of their main nationalities is Brazilian, while Pratt notes increasing numbers from Europe. “Awareness has grown, in Europe in particular, in Australia as a potential juniors’ study destination,” he relates. “The current generation of teens in Europe includes some very savvy travellers, many of whom have studied in more traditional junior destinations previously. Many of our students have studied in Ireland or Malta previously, and are now looking for more of an adventure destination,” expounds Pratt.
The trend towards more adventure, coupled with the move towards parents wanting to provide a useful experience for their children, has also meant that more parents are sending their children to lesser-established language teaching destinations. ILSC, which runs junior programmes in various locations in Canada, the USA and Australia, has recently launched a junior course at its India centre. Here, morning activities are followed by afternoon English classes and lessons about Indian history and culture. In the third week of the course, students take a week-long trip to Hichamel and experience “English on the road”.
Aaron Duff at Mandarin House in China, which has been offering summer camps for juniors since 2004, says that although students aged 16 and under make up only around five per cent of their overall enrolment, the junior sector has grown at the same pace as their adult sector. But Duff forecasts further growth in this area in the future. The USA is currently their main junior nationality but growth is coming from Russia and Japan too, and the range of nationalities is expanding with around 30 different nationalities represented in their 2011 camps. Duff puts this down to parents wanting the best for their children’s futures. “The world is considering China and the Chinese language to play a large part in the world’s future and parents want to give their children a head-start on this,” he says.
Modern technology is also playing its part in the spread of the junior market to more long-haul destinations, with parents now able to stay in touch with their children far more easily while overseas, as Michael O’Grady at Byron Bay English Language School in Australia mentions. “Easy communication methods [such as] text and skype means families are kept up-to-date daily with their children’s adventures abroad. This gives them peace of mind and comfort while their child is away,” he says. Pratt relates they also use modern communication methods to ensure parents keep abreast of their children’s progress. “We work very hard to ensure that parents are kept in touch with their children, with emails confirming a safe arrival and blog posts put up each day for parents to access,” he reports.
The ease with which parents can touch base with their children has also helped develop the younger end of the junior market, with several school sources noting rising demand for language courses from younger students. “Language travellers seem to be getting younger and younger and parents are becoming more and more comfortable in sending their young teenagers abroad,” states Mara Muller from ILSC. Wrenford Johnson at Rennert International in the USA notes that they have experienced more enrolments from students aged between eight and 12, particularly from Russia, while Simunec in Canada notes growing interest from seven and eight year olds “from everywhere, especially from the USA for French language camps in Montreal as day campers, visiting Montreal with family”. Llewelyn, meanwhile, predicts an even younger demographic of student, namely students under the age of eight.
In addition, the proliferation of younger learners has also led to the growth of parent and child courses. Veronica Cartagenova at Berlitz Canada reports their parent and child course is particularly popular with Asian families.
Despite the favourable performance of the junior market, industry sources remain cautious in their forecasts for the future, conscious of the fact that this sector is highly sensitive to external factors such as national security issues, environmental disasters and health scares. Buckland notes, “The main concerns for us are the continuing uncertainty in the global financial markets and increased financial pressure on consumers, as well as the heightened threat of terrorism in and around London surrounding the Olympic Games.”
However, on the whole, the future is bright with many schools maintaining that the drive towards personal improvement will continue to propel the junior sector. Roberto Russo, Sales Director at Ardmore Language Schools, which operates junior courses in the UK and USA, and short post-course tours in Europe, concludes, “We anticipate continued growth. In a world where education, language and international exposure provide a springboard into a good career, parents are keener than ever to send their children on English language educational and cultural stays.”
The safety issue
When dealing with junior students, safety is paramount. As Moira Kelly at Explo USA says, “This age group requires lots of individualised attention and care.” However, in most countries government regulations are, at best, patchy and at worse non-existent, and it is often up to the language providers themselves to develop comprehensive guidelines for the safety of their junior students.
“Our number-one concern is always our students’ safety,” asserts Wendy Gillanders at Access International English Language Centre in Canada. At the VIVA Group IH in Spain, meanwhile, the schools carefully select host families who have undergone criminal record checks, and who all undertake to provide students with a full range of accommodation services including three meals per day, according to Marco Fernández Cruz at VIVA. “Almost all families live within walking distance of the school, as is the student residence, which is within a 15 minute walk from the school. The [staff] responsible for the programme of activities as well as some of the teachers stay in the residence for the duration of the course. One of their key responsibilities is to help supervise the well being of the students at all times. Furthermore, the school operates a strict curfew policy which ensures that all students are back at their accommodation by the established time. This policy is strictly enforced both by the host families and the monitors at the residence.”
Ana Goicolea at College of the Holy Child in the UK, says, “After 35 years organising junior programmes we are very conscious of the ages we are dealing with and how delicate and sensitive they are.” The school has its own health and safety policy in which all steps to ensure the child´s protection are documented. In addition, she says, “We are members of HOSAC (Hastings Overseas Student Advisory Council UK), and we are continuously updated with news from the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) and the Criminal Records Bureau and adjust them to our own code of practice.”
In some countries there are language school organisations and associations that publish guidelines for members. “We abide by UK law and best practice as laid down in our Abls accreditation regulations,” says Christopher Retallack at SUL Language Schools in the UK. He adds, “Parents and agents have personal contact with our head office and we pride ourselves in our fast and efficient communications. The secret is consistent caring and constant communication.”
Although government regulations are in place for the care of international students in some countries, they are on the whole not comprehensive enough. Michael O’Grady at Byron Bay English Language School in Australia relates that there, government regulation is mostly related to the screening of staff members to ensure their suitability to work with students under 18.
According to Patrik Simunec, President at MWS Student Camps, there is limited regulation within this sector of language travel in Canada also. He laments that there is an evident lack of governing bodies for programmes catering to young international language students, adding, “[There are] substantial differences in operating junior and adult programmes [which are] not always understood by adult language schools who see the junior market as a boost to summer business.”
In the USA, Kelly says that some states have, over the past 10 years or so, increased their regulations but with increasing budget cuts, they do not have the infrastructure to ensure full enforcement. As a consequence, she says, “Some summer programmes are in operation and the local or state health departments that should regulate the programmes do not do so because they are not aware that the programmes exist.” She adds, “This means that there are programmes that are operating within the United States that have no oversight.”
In the UK, too, Helen Madaras at Heathfield School believes government regulation is inadequate. “The government is sadly unaware of the value and importance of young international students and how vulnerable they are,” she says. “There is no directly relevant legislation but the Children Act applies and we all have a duty of care. We also take into account social services guidelines and OFSTED/Boarding Schools’ Association guidelines for the main school.” Madaras used to run a guardianship organisation and is still an inspector and says she believes overseas juniors are under protected. “Many organisations dealing with overseas youngsters do not understand their duty of care, do not have sensible guidelines in place, or have inadequate supervision”.
Hot course trends
Schools operating in the junior sector must get the recipe right in order to succeed. Patrik Simunec at MWS Student Camps in Canada observes that it is a difficult balance to perform. “[There is a] general increase in academic learning but not necessarily at the expense of fewer activities.”
To give junior students aged between nine and 17 a fully rounded experience of Germany, the Goethe Institute combines “learning German and experiencing the German culture while participating in a programme packed with sports, music and fun activities”, says Rebecca Nauheimer.
Juniors have very clear expectations of a language programme, as Julia Brown at St Brelade’s College in Jersey explains. “Teenagers seem to be more discerning these days, they are looking for more choice, a wider range of activities and are more particular about their language learning requirements,” she says.
Javier Menéndez at Aston Languages in Spain agrees, “We have noticed a greater focus on and more clarity about what our students are looking for. Parents tend to be more price sensitive than they used to be. Furthermore, some students ask for speciality programmes, knowing that preparing yourself in times of crisis gives you a competitive advantage.”
To provide a more vocational edge to their summer camps in Canada and the USA, Berlitz has introduced a junior leadership component which focuses on communication, intercultural competence and young leadership skills. “With the new focus on international camps we intend to meet the demand of the global citizens who are strongly interested in language [with] other enrichments for teenagers to nurture global leaders,” notes Director of Global Marketing/Regional Marketing Director Europe, Rita Pauls.
Junior course providers not only have to satisfy the needs of the students but also the parents, and Simunec argues that parents are becoming more exacting about the details of a programme. “We believe parents, as decision makers, are becoming more concerned about the specifics of programmes - staff ratios, academic and activity programming, quality, reputation/recommendations,” he asserts.
Junior language providers have been working hard to meet the needs of both the parents and the students by increasing their offerings and tweaking their existing courses. Jeda Higgs at St Giles North America says that they have been varying the add-on options and activities and have designed camps with a particular focus. She says, “Demand for more activities in general has been addressed in the revamping of our course offerings: sailing lessons in Florida, dance and drama in New York and American culture based workshops at Yale.”
LAL USA also offers a two-centre experience which, Cyd Anthony, LAL USA’s Young Learner Programmes Coordinator, says “offers students the perfect way to experience all that America has to offer”.
Roberto Russo at Ardmore Language Schools, which has junior centres in the UK and USA, says, “We have recently extended our repertoire to include colleges in Oxford and Cambridge University for 2012 and are constantly looking for ways to meet the requirements of our agents. For example, the Japanese market has shown a recent trend towards a requirement for more academic learning.”
Kaplan has noticed a change in focus depending on the location of its school, according to Neil Harvey. “In Australia, the focus this year did change from fun/culture based learning to academic preparation for international schooling. In the UK, we have been developing theme-based programmes ranging from performing arts to sports coaching.”
At ADK Augsburger Deutschkurse in Germany, Sabine Steinacher reports that they too are revamping their leisure programme “with activities such as rock climbing, kayak trips and fun ball games. In 2011 we rented a court for “Seifenfussball“, playing football in a wet and soapy field which was very funny!“