March 2007 issue

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Summer formula

Up-to-date activities; good integration with other students and ideally, locals; targeted learning and above all, an element of fun: this is what all successful summer programme operators need to incorporate into students' schedules, as Jane Vernon Smith discovers.

The objectives of students on summer language programmes can vary considerably. At one end of the scale, you find serious language students looking to undertake intensive study, while at the other you have juniors whose receptiveness to learning is dependent on an atmosphere that is also lively and fun. In between are the growing number of more mature clients, for whom, as agent Ernesto Baerel of Easymex in Mexico observes, the emphasis is much more on experiencing culture and art than on grammatical perfection.

Therefore, the general objective for summer programmes is to combine high quality language learning with a good dose of fun. For Wolfgang Stein of the German-based agency, English in Britain, this makes sense. Progress in the language is "definitely the central issue", he affirms. However, "Parents are realising that the feel-good factor is important, and that their children are benefiting from the social English they have in their host families and during the leisure activities," he adds. The challenge for language schools is to strike the right balance, so that the aims of all can be met.

Because of the importance of social and cultural factors in the overall mix, location and facilities are both of major importance in the choice of a study programme overseas. Agent Joey Wan, Manager of Study Tours/Charming Holidays in Hong Kong, points out that some programmes, such as those in Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, are so well known that they can attract students purely on the basis of location.

The ease and cost of travel can also be a decisive factor, according to Audrey Montali of Indirizzo Inghilterra in Italy. "Loads of students choose Limerick [in Ireland], for example," she says, "because they can fly to Shannon for about e20 (US$26) and get picked up at the airport as part of the package." On the other hand, notes Stein, people seem quite open to considering lesser-known locations, as long as the facilities and study programme itself both appear attractive.

As Wan observes, campus-based programmes with more and better quality facilities are most appreciated by parents selecting programmes for their children. Medical facilities on campus are particularly important to them, he notes, while they are also looking for features such as a computer room with Internet access and international-standard sports facilities.

In line with the growing number of enquiries for younger age students (see box overleaf), safety issues are a growing concern. As such, accommodation on-site is a major selling point. Furthermore, according to Baerel, parents now require a strict curfew for juniors, and he has had two enquiries from parents of US teens regarding the presence of live webcams on campus. "We can feel the global wave of fear and security needs in the needs of our students," he reflects.

Parents also feel happier if their children';s whole stay is thoroughly mapped out, according to Stein, and this begins with the journey, with parents stressing the importance of safe transfers and not too much airport waiting time. The importance attached to safety is also highlighted by Montali, who notes that, "The vast majority of Italian parents seem to be willing to sacrifice a good nationality mix in favour of their child going as part of a group, with a group leader."

Summer living arrangements

In terms of accommodation, agent Irina Postnikova of Prosper Link in Russia identifies a difference in requirements between those aged up to 16 and those aged 16-plus. With under-16s, parents are funding the trip and most, she says, are looking for high standards of accommodation. Indeed, some are willing to book de-luxe facilities, which tend not to be available. "They are very reluctant," she notes, "to pay money for accommodation which seems to be below the standard they are used to." Those aged 16-plus, on the other hand, are very undemanding regarding accommodation, according to Postnikova, "but prefer to stay in residences, rather than with host families."

Student residences offer a degree of privacy and independence, which is valued by older students, while they can also score in terms of cost. However, campus-based accommodation is most highly rated when it is high quality and incorporates a wide range of excellent facilities. "I must say," comments Montali, "the accommodation options often swing a decision. A good, reasonably priced residence is a real winner, especially," she emphasises, "if the rooms are en suite."

Karine Joly-Patrouillault of ISEFE, which provides summer programmes at the University of Savoie in France, also finds that proximity of accommodation to the school is an important factor for summer students. Meanwhile, Sabine Kalina, Educational Consultant at GLS Berlin in Germany, comments, "Students who book homestay in the first place often decide to change to the campus, because of the distance to school and the social life." Among older students, this is less important than the freedom to come and go as they please. For this reason, François Millet, Director of French language school, Jardin des Cultures d';Europe in Avignon, says that more participants prefer bed and breakfast-style living. Students attending Millet';s summer courses are often attracted by the theatre festival and need to be free to attend evening performances, he explains.

Nevertheless, host family accommodation appears to remain overwhelmingly the most popular option around the world, as clients readily buy into the idea of language learning through immersion. According to Francis Crossen at the Dublin School of English in Ireland, this option also offers the best value for money. This situation has not changed greatly, although there has been a noticeable rise in the standard demanded of homestays and the range of facilities expected. According to Keith Pollard, Principal of Harrogate Tutorial College in the UK, "Students want en suite facilities and broadband access at their host families."

Evolving activities

While facilities and accommodation are important considerations, the choice of activities on offer at the school can make or break the deal for many summer students. As Anthony Stille, Director of ESC Toronto in Canada, spells out, "Students expect a full slate of trips, tours and activities." Not only do these activities allow students to relax and to mix with their peers, but they help them to acquire vocabulary in real-life situations. As such, "The most important thing is that activity leaders and teachers do encourage students to take part in those activities," comments Slovenian agent, Vesna Salabalia, Director of Language Travel at Intelekta PE Celje.

Some locations are strongly linked with certain activities. Juli Goff, Director of Se Habla language school in Mexico, reports that the nearby Sea of Cortes is the major draw in the summer. Consequently, the school';s activities, which are focused on that attraction, remain the same year in, year out – relaxing on the beach, diving, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing and surfing. In most locations, however, schools stress the need to introduce new activities each year as summer courses attract a high level of repeat business. For Pollard in the UK, this is estimated at around 40 per cent. As a result, it is important to keep the experience fresh for returning students.

"We change [activities] quite a lot," agrees Renate Schmid of Cultura Wien in Vienna, Austria, "because we have a number of students who come for the second or third time."

Furthermore, activities are subject to changing fashion. At the Dublin School of English, where a full-time manager is employed to deal with the extra-curricular programme, Crossen relates that a good proportion of his time is spent sourcing new activities. "There is no way you can run this sort of programme without looking for new activities and venues," he says.

It is worth noting that the demand for high quality programmes can sometimes be in inverse proportion to the spending power of the client. According to Salabalia, Slovenian juniors and their parents are very demanding – students are often quite critical in respect of lessons and complain if they find either lessons or teachers boring. For Slovenian and Croatian clients, these programmes are quite expensive, and those who can afford them expect a very good all-round service, she explains.

Learning outside the classroom

While agents have praise for the summer programmes run by many schools, a number of problems appear relatively common. Stein in Germany identifies the problem areas as being "groups dominated by one or two languages, and sometimes an indiscriminate allocation of host families". Meanwhile, Montali believes that too many schools "ease off on the teaching side, believing that the students'; main aim is to have a good time".

In acknowledgement of the fact that, for many summer students, the emphasis is as much on fun as it is on learning, language schools sometimes adapt their style of teaching accordingly. "We concentrate more on communication and spoken English during the summer, and expect students to gain increased fluency," comments Pollard in the UK. Austria-based Schmid agrees that more emphasis is placed on oral communication between students. This, she explains, is "because, in general, the students have studied grammar for quite a long time, and mostly have a good knowledge of [this], but lack speaking abilities."

Meanwhile, at Milton College in Sydney, Australia, Director of Studies, Cintia Agosti relates, "We make a greater effort to integrate school excursions into such programmes, so as to give students a greater taste of Australian culture and lifestyles." Similarly, Millet reports from France that his school takes the opportunity to teach some lessons out of school during summer courses – taking students to a Provençal market, to wine producers and shops, for example, as part of their studies.

Strategies such as these, if well executed, can contribute enormously to students'; progress. Social mixing with local people is also generally acknowledged to be one of the best ways of accelerating the acquisition of a language alongside formal classes. However, this is not achieved automatically. Those who are accommodated within a host family have a built-in advantage in this respect, but there are alternative ways in which language schools can assist the process among their students.

Schmid comments, "We… choose activities where Austrians are bound to participate and encourage the students to get into contact. As these are mostly social activities… where the Austrians are relaxed and have more time, contact can easily be established." Inevitably, however, some students are more successful than others in getting to know local people – often depending on their level of language.

In Canada, Stille points out that summer schools such as his, which are based on a university campus, have another advantage in this respect, as students are exposed all day to Canadian university life, allowing them to interact with Canadian students who are attending the university throughout the summer. In the USA, Toby Brody, Director of ESL at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, USA reports that his institution also matches students with local families for a "Sunday dinner" and hosts international nights to which participating local families are invited. Meanwhile, Gadir International Language School in Cadiz, Spain offers summer students free linguistic exchanges, reports the school';s Cristina Sáinz.

Other decisive factors

For those language schools that want to stand out from the crowd, there are various other factors that can sway a student';s decision. According to Montali, a certificate of achievement and, possibly, a recognised exam, are increasingly popular with summer students. For university-aged students this is especially true. "Certificates of achievement are incredibly important, as students in high schools and [on] some university courses can get credit points by presenting them. I feel schools tend to underestimate this," she ventures.

Because summer programmes are often booked by parents for their children, agents find that such clients tend to be very demanding. They need to use all their skill and patience to clinch a sale. "Parents who send their children on these programmes ask a lot of detailed questions, and very often contact us several times to arrive at an informed decision," reports Stein, underlining that schools providing the most comprehensive information about their packages may be favoured by both parents and agents.

Due to parental concern for their children';s welfare, parents want full information on every aspect of the trip, and are looking for an ideal programme that includes high quality tuition, a good standard of accommodation, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, a good nationality mix among students and close supervision, notwithstanding any demands for accredited learning.

Agent, Cristina Sifuentes Amador of Viajes Crisam in Mexico, sums up the wish list: "a package that includes everything, and with a reasonable fee".

Getting younger… and older

While summer programmes are traditionally associated with the young, the age profile of students tends to vary, depending on the type of school, its location and facilities. With many schools experiencing rising demand for summer courses, it seems that no particular age group is leading this growth; rather, different schools are attracting demand from different age profiles.

While 15-to-18 year olds remain the core clientele for many summer programmes, some schools report that they are experiencing more enquiries on behalf of much younger children. In Mexico, for example, Juli Goff of Se Habla language school comments that she has been receiving more enquiries from parents wanting to travel with children aged between three and eight years.

This may not be typical, but Anthony Stille, Director of ESC Toronto in Canada, acknowledges an increase in demand for the eight-to-12 age group, which comes primarily in the form of group bookings. In Italy, meanwhile, Carlo Lipparini of Istituto Il David comments that demand has been increasing steadily for programmes for students aged between 10-to-15, although they are not yet numerous enough to allow the school to design a course especially for them.

Even in Portugal, where demand for language courses used to come mainly from adults wishing to study for professional reasons, Alexandra Borges de Sousa at CIAL comments, "Now we see more and more younger students, who combine a vacation with the language course for pure pleasure." As a result, the average age of students has fallen over the past year.

Agents are also seeing increased demand from younger clients. For Tanja Henriksen of InterStudies in Denmark, the average age of summer students is between 15 and 17. However, she says, "We see that there are many students travelling [at] a much younger age."

But this trend is not a universal one. In Argentina, it is the experience of Joss Heywood from De Allende Viajes that in general, parents from the interior of that country are not keen on sending younger children abroad, even, he says, in accompanied groups. His clients are, therefore, all aged 16-plus.

At the other end of the scale, in New Zealand, Kurt Schmidli of New Horizon College of English is seeing a growth in summer enrolments from the "baby boomer" generation (ie those now aged around 60), which is increasing the average age profile of the school.

Nationality trends

The increasing availability of cheap flights has had a significant impact on the nationality trends within many summer language programmes, affecting a number of language travel destinations.

According to Francis Crossen of the Dublin School of English in Ireland, this country benefits enormously from budget aviation offers, and his own school has been receiving more enquiries from eastern Europe and Asian countries as a result.

In the UK, Keith Pollard, Principal of Harrogate Tutorial College, has seen greater demand coming from France and Germany. These traditionally very conservative markets, are now starting to look for new destinations, "probably due to the availability of low-cost flights to Leeds-Bradford and the north of England", Pollard says.

According to Crossen, another factor affecting nationality trends is that, "More mature markets, such as Italy and Spain, have more disposable income." This is borne out by a comment from Lorinda Theuma of Inlingua in Malta, who observes that the nationality profile there has remained fairly stable in general, but with an increase in intake from Spain. Sabine Kalina, Educational Consultant at GLS Berlin in Germany, has also witnessed growing student enrolments from Spain.

"Newer" markets, such as Latvia, are now sending many students across Europe, and many schools currently gain significant business from the countries of central and eastern Europe. Situated at the eastern edge of Austria, Vienna is well placed to take advantage of this business, and Renate Schmid confirms, "Cultura Wien has built a very good reputation in the neighbouring countries of middle Europe, where most of our summer course students come from." The school';s main source countries are Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia, and, in 2006, she reports that the school received a number of students from Albania for the first time.

Meanwhile, from the other side of the Atlantic, Anthony Stille at ESC Toronto in Canada notes "a tremendous increase in interest from Europe", with the greatest contribution coming from Spain, France and Germany. This denotes that while traditional European markets have more disposable income, they are also looking to spend it farther afield. Middle Eastern countries – particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – are also sending more students, says Stille.

US-based Toby Brody, Director of ESL at North Carolina State University, observes that most of his students are from Asia, which has been the case for a number of years. However, since 2000, students have also been coming from countries as far away as Mongolia, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Ivory Coast.

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