||In an industry that relies heavily on reputation, a few bad players can affect the whole market. As Pete Bulmer, Principal of the Academy SJW in London, UK, says, “Client confidence is the key to everything if people are going to make an investment of hundreds or even thousands of pounds in an English language course, they need to be absolutely sure of the quality and probity of the establishment, the qualifications and experience of their teachers, and the motivation of their fellow students.”
Nicholas Lockstone at the Elizabeth Johnson Organisation (EJO) in Hampshire, UK believes that accreditation, even if it is not compulsory, can improve the quality of language schools throughout a country. “Accreditation [in the UK] raises the overall standard of English language teaching in this country,” he says. “It reduces the likelihood of institutions that are in any way substandard and don’t give good value for money.”
For individual schools the motivation behind seeking accreditation is largely to show their potential customers that they are reputable organisations and have been assessed by a third party. Alison Blythe, Director of Students International in Leicestershire, UK which is accredited by the Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students (Aegis) and Accreditation UK says, “Accreditation by these organisations gives worldwide assurance of the quality of our services and care.”
For agents, quality assurance schemes are an additional safety measure to ensure the integrity of the institutions they represent. Testimonials from students and visits to schools are often the main ways in which agents check a school’s quality, and the importance put upon accreditation depends largely on the individual agency and the countries they are dealing with. “We work mainly but not always with accredited schools,” asserts Vanessa Lenssen, Founder and Managing Director of GoLearnTo, an agency based in the UK. “As an agent, we personally check the schools for high standards, however, we feel that working with a school with an accreditation adds weight to our own quality assessment and helps to reassure our customer.”
Investment for schools
The main role of most language school accreditation schemes is to ensure compliance with certain standards, polices and procedures, and the monitoring of good educational practices through inspections and onsite visits.
Of course, all this requires a considerable investment in resources on the schools’ part. “Apart from intensive preparation for the regular [Accreditation UK] inspections, we had to make sure our course quality, procedures and systems were up to scratch at all times,” comments Bulmer. “Accreditation UK operates a system of unannounced spot-checks to keep you on your toes. The last time we had a spot-check, I was on holiday and missed a great day’s fun!”
Despite the work involved in being accredited, Bulmer maintains that the scheme is good value for money and encourages them to constantly find ways of improving their provision. In Canada, Maureen Sargent, Director of the Tesl Centre at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS, agrees that the whole accreditation procedure itself can help the school make improvements. “Going through the process of [accreditation] gave us the opportunity to review our policies and procedures and to update/revise where necessary. It really made us work through our rationalisation for doing things the way we do them.”
As of March 2007, CLC and Capls have merged to form Languages Canada. Previously CLC ran its own accreditation scheme for members, and now all Languages Canada members must go through the accreditation or re-accreditation process. This, says Kristina Stewart at Stewart College of Languages in Victoria, BC is an “involved and expensive process”. However, she agrees with Sargent when she says, “It does help us re-examine our policy and procedures with a view to quality and in the end, we’ll have a better school as a result of the process.”
Quality schemes are certainly widely viewed by the schools as a valuable tool to improve services rather than just a means to win a badge with which to adorn their marketing material. “Every time we have an inspection,” relates Sid Brown at St Brelades College in Jersey, Channel Islands, “we are given areas in which to improve and we have implemented a number of important changes as a result.”
Eye on costs
But accreditation can be a costly business, especially for smaller schools. Sensitive to the issue of cost, many accrediting organisations link their fee to the size of the school. For example, in Ireland, the cost of Acels application and annual fee is as low as e430 (US$666) for a school with under 10 classrooms/teachers.
In the UK, Accreditation UK introduced a new fee structure in April 2006 linking the cost of accreditation to the size of the school. Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, (which administers Accreditation UK along with the British Council), explains the reason for this change. “The review of the scheme in 2004-05 was intended to make it more inclusive, more accessible for all types of centres including the so-called ‘method’ schools, and more affordable... In addition, English UK dropped its membership rates to attract smaller players.” According to Millns, their efforts have started to bear fruit; a considerable increase in interest in Accreditation UK was recorded particularly from smaller centres at the beginning of the year, something Millns hopes will translate into a surge in interest in English UK membership.
In Malta, quality among the country’s language teaching industry has stepped up a gear. Language schools in the country are in fact regulated by national legislation. But to push quality standards still further, Feltom has implemented its own accreditation scheme and from this year, all Feltom members must have at least applied for inspection. “So far,” says Isabelle Pace Warrington, Feltom’s Executive Director, “the largest schools have been inspected and we are expecting the remaining schools to follow suit later this year.”
Raising the bar
Indeed, it is not only Feltom that is raising the bar when it comes to quality standards. In Australia, while all schools must obtain accreditation though Neas, the national accrediting organisation, one of the roles of the school association, English Australia (EA), is to increase the standards of its members still further through its code of conduct and the signing of the Statutory Declaration twice a year.
Similarly, in New Zealand, language schools must be NZQA approved and audited, but those that are full members of the association, English New Zealand, have to adhere to additional standards. English New Zealand’s Secretary, Kim Renner, explains, “Schools are audited using [our] standards on a three-yearly basis and the standards are focused on areas of best practice and management directly relevant to English language schools including in the academic area.”
Within language school associations, Sargent says that the quality provision attained by all members makes many individual schools want to push themselves further. “Being accredited [by Languages Canada means] we want to go beyond the minimum requirements and provide the highest level of service possible,” she explains. “The other members of [Languages Canada] set such a high standard that in order to compete with them we have to go well beyond the bare minimum. We want to rank up there with the best of the best.”
In countries where there is no state legislation regarding the quality of language schools, language school associations do, to some extent, fill this role and provide a platform from which to lobby government on quality issues. For example, in Italy, the schools groups, Asils and Italian in Italy, stipulate that members achieve accreditation through Sincert (Italian National System for the Accreditation of Certification and Inspection Bodies). Italian in Italy also has a Code of Practice, and both associations are working together to gain government recognition. According to Giuseppina Foti at Italian in Italy, both associations have been in discussions with the Italian Ministry of Education about the creation of a register for all private accredited Italian language schools which can then accept student visa holders for Italian language studies.
Association membership is not only about ensuring standards but it also provides schools with a way in which to promote their high standards to students and agents around the world. Will Dowling at the Dublin School of English in Ireland comments that their membership of MEI-Relsa “assists us to market this quality worldwide”.
Meanwhile, Anthony Stille, Director of the English School of Canada in Toronto, ONT, Canada highlights the benefits that can come out of being part of “a network of quality schools across the country where we can work together on industry level goals and initiatives”.
Similarly, Christian Signoretto, Marketing and Communication Officer at Asils-member Lingua It in Verona, Italy, remarks, “One of the primary benefits of associating our school with Asils or any other accredited association is the internal and reciprocal know-how that such a collaboration creates.“
In the UK, too, Bulmer highlights the networking opportunities of association membership. “Membership of the British Council accreditation scheme and English UK also brings us into direct regular contact with other schools this means that we can compare and benchmark our offer continuously, steal good ideas from our competitors and let them nick ideas from us. No one wants to be left behind!”
Is more better?
Throughout the world there are many quality accreditation schemes, associations and groups of language schools all professing to promote quality, so is more better or, as Bulmer argues, does a “proliferation in schemes just confuse the client”?
Brown at St Brelade’s College believes that being able to display several quality assurance logos could attract additional students to a school. “Choosing a language school can feel a little risky, so given a choice between two quite similar schools you have never been to, you may be more likely to choose the one with more accreditations,” he argues.
Agent Teresa Lei from the Education Foundation of Europe (Stage) in Taiwan agrees and says schools that have been accredited by more than one body have the advantage. “I trust a school more if it’s a member of several associations, especially if it’s a member of Eaquals,” she relates. “I have found that standards of accreditation associations are pretty much similar [although] they might have a different focus. If a school passes all those standards, that means they are good in different aspects.”
However, Christine de Chanaud at Séjours Home Abroad in France maintains that, although successful completion of one or two accreditation schemes serves as a “minimum guarantee”, more do not add to the overall quality of a school. In addition, she ventures, if agents only look at the quality marks obtained by schools, this could disadvantage the smaller players. “The large groups [often] have more to spend in obtaining these accreditations but less personal contact to offer our students.”
It is also important to know what the various quality schemes stand for, say Lenssen. She warns, “Some schools appear to ‘collect’ accreditations but it’s not a case of quantity of accreditations, it’s the quality of them and how that translates into their services, in our view.”
As well as national quality assurance schemes, there are a handful of international organisations that provide additional quality assurance measures across national borders, such as Quality English, Eaquals and Ialc. These groups all require members to have national accreditation where such a scheme exists and then undergo further inspections or assessment for their organisation membership.
Jan Capper, Ialc Executive Director, explains the need for Ialc to operate an additional accreditation scheme. “We run our own accreditation scheme because it is the only way we can be sure that our schools live up to the association’s marketing claims.” In a bid to continuously strive for high quality provision, the Ialc scheme requires members to produce a “quality plan”, which outlines how they intend to improve the different aspects of their school. “Their progress [with the quality plan] is measured at the time of their inspection and they can fail the inspection if they do not implement what they have promised,” explains Capper. “The aim of the quality plan is to go beyond minimum standards and focus on continuous development.”
Richard Rossner at Eaquals comments that membership of Eaquals also demonstrates to clients that the school has “gone the extra mile” in terms of quality assurance. “In a confusing market for language learning services, clients increasingly look for such distinguishing features,” he adds.
And, of course, membership of international quality organisations allows members to network with international players with similar standards. Rossner says that about half of their members are schools that provide language courses for the local market. “A key factor in Eaqual’s growth has been the desire of schools targeting the language travel market to work professionally and commercially with schools catering for the local or national markets that share the same quality ideals,” he says.
When it comes to evolving quality standards, different countries are at different stages of development. Millns dubs the Accreditation UK scheme as the “global gold standard” because it was, he claims, the “first in the world in respect to language centre accreditation”. In other countries, quality schemes are only just emerging. In France, over the last couple of years, two quality schemes have been launched: the first was the Label Qualité FLE, backed by the French government, and the second, the Label Fle, administered by the French language school association Fle.fr.
Karine Joly-Patrouillault at Isefe at the Université de Savoie in Chambery, France says that they have the Label Qualité FLE, which, despite the time and personal commitment it took from everyone at the school, has been worthwhile. The Label Qualité FLE uses a star system to grade certain aspects of a school’s performance, and these can, if the school wishes, be displayed on the company’s promotional materials. As a consequence, Joly-Patrouillault believes the Label Qualité FLE could become the Michelin Guide for French language schools. This grading system is also something that other accreditation schemes may be considering in the future.
In some countries, there are little or no quality assurance measures at all. Mexico, for example, has a schools’ association, Mexico Sí, Asociación Mexicana de Institutos de Español, which according to Harriet Guerrero at the association, has an academic committee that monitors the study programmes and works closely with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México on teaching issues. Some schools are also affiliated to the Mexican Department of Education, but this does not necessarily mean that they have a proven level of quality service.
In a market such as this, some schools have sought accreditation overseas. Se Habla La Paz in La Paz in Mexico is accredited through Wilmington College in the USA. The procedure involved a member of the college’s Spanish language faculty staying at Se Habla La Paz for a month, observing and interacting with staff and their students. “Even though we are physically located in Mexico, Se Habla La Paz chooses to adhere to [the US] standards that are appreciated and recognised by our clients,” states the school’s Director Juli Goff. As a result of this accreditation, students studying at Se Habla La Paz can earn credits towards their degree course at home.
The trend towards seeking accreditation from an outside source in countries where there is little choice at home is gaining momentum. Teresa O’Donnell, Executive Director of the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) in the USA, reports that there are currently six language centres outside the USA that are seeking CEA accreditation.
What is clear is that accreditation systems in various guises are mushrooming around the world as language schools seek to make themselves stand out from the crowd as well as enhance their own quality provision. In addition, with governments looking at ways to shore up national security, they are increasingly turning their attentions to accredited language schools as the bona fide doormen to the country (see box, page 31). While opinion on the move towards compulsory accreditation remains divided, it is seen by many as an evitable step in a growing industry worldwide. And, as Sargent says. “If schools can’t meet minimum requirements, they shouldn’t be in the business.”
Quality-linked visa issuance
In an era when national security is at the forefront of many countries’ political agendas, many governments around the world are looking at linking visa issuance for language students to the accreditation of language schools. In the UK, for example, only language schools with accreditation can be listed on the new Register of Sponsors for the points-based entry clearance system that is to be introduced by February 2009. From then on, students will only be able to get a visa for schools on the register.
For some time now, the USA has been looking at ways to use accreditation as a “gatekeeper for student visa acceptance”, says Roger Williams at the US accrediting body Accet. The Coleman amendment, which is currently in congress, calls for all language programmes in the USA to be accredited by CEA, Accet or similar. Speaking of the negative side of such a move, Williams says, “The idea of a compulsory requirement presents both philosophical as well as practical implications, including the burden on very small schools relative to the financial regulatory issues.” However, he adds that on the positive side it could be the means to “provide a measure of quality assurance oversight at minimal cost to the government”.
At the forefront of quality-linked immigration policy, Australia already ensures visa issuance is only available for students attending a verified quality institution. But Vanessa Lenssen of GoLearnTo agency in the UK voices her concern. “Whilst as an agent I agree in principal of controlling the standards of schools and linking that to visa applications, given there are differences between each accreditation offered, this has the potential to have a detrimental effect,” she explains.
Richard Rossner at Eaquals speaks for many industry sources when he says, “In general, we are in favour of measures that encourage [good practice]. However, the aim should be to ensure that this is done in the interests of all students, not just those who require visas, and that the accreditation impacts on the quality of learning and does not concern itself only with formal or ‘system’ issues.”
Another concern among many sources is that by making an accreditation scheme compulsory it will devalue it. “[Compulsory accreditation] will downgrade the kudos of being accredited,” ventures Alison Blythe at Students International in the UK, although she acknowledges it will also “help rid the industry of the cowboys and restrict illegal use of schools for visa applications”.
Carolyn Blackmore, Chief Executive of Quality English, suggests there is a danger that standards “fall to the lowest common denominator, then there are too many accredited organisations and it becomes almost worthless, in that it is no longer any use to agents as a point of difference.”
Problems with parameters
Not only is accreditation a costly and time-consuming process, making it particularly challenging for smaller schools, but some schools argue that their type of provision does not fit into the criteria prescribed by the accrediting organisation. Alison Blythe at Students International in Leicestershire, UK, complains that she had difficulty gaining accreditation for the school’s independent study centre, as it is not attached to a mainstream boarding school.
She believes the Accreditation UK scheme should have better guidelines for inspectors, who are constrained by having to tick appropriate boxes on a form. “[Inspectors] understand the restrictions/differences of a smaller organisation but are sometimes not able to ‘tick the box’ as it does not exactly fit the product,” she asserts. “The old days of individual reports for individual organisations was much better but for cost reasons has been replaced by the ‘tick box’ variety.”
Also in the UK, Ella Tyler, who runs a small independent summer-only operation, Mountlands Language School in Exmouth, says that not only is the cost prohibitive for her school but a number of other factors make Accreditation UK almost unattainable. The first problem is the requirement of a Delta-qualified Director of Studies. “We run for approximately five months of the year, and not full-time. Somebody who has trained to Delta level will be seeing English language teaching as a career and will expect a full-time job for good money and rightly so,” she states. “We cannot offer those hours or that level of money to anyone.”
Another of Tyler’s bugbears is the stipulation that all teachers are Tefl trained, whereas the school prefers to use fourth-year teacher training students with plenty of classroom experience. She believes that accreditation, when compulsory, will sound the death knell for her summer school.
“Summer schools offer a different product to year-round schools,” she claims. “The fact that we are only open for three-to-four months of the year means that we don’t have the leverage or the resources of other schools. We offer a friendly, personal service that you don’t get at big schools, and that will be lost if we are forced to close due to this red tape.”