The majority of agents canvassed for this article expressed a mild preference for working with small, family-run independent businesses. However, most admitted to working with both independent and chain schools and highlighted that both types had their own particular advantages and disadvantages. Few expressed a strong preference for either type of school, although Raj Bhandari from Hariyali Travels and Tours in Nepal and Colin Furness from ALP Addestramento Linguistico Professionale in Italy were two agents who had strongly opposing views on this subject.
“I have yet to find an advantage [of working with a language school that is part of a chain],” says Furness. “I am convinced that reputable accredited independent schools offer consistently better tuition and accommodation provision.” Bhandari, on the other hand, says that working with chain schools is preferable due to “their reliability and good standards”. He added, “It is really important that the school is part of a chain. About 75 per cent of students choose to study in a chain school [due to their] better quality and location of cities and the quality of the facilities and accommodation.”
Most agents, however, point out that independent and chain schools provide different options for clients and having both on their portfolios means that they are able to please more clients. Mamiko Tagutschi from Cosmolingua in Switzerland says, “Our clients choose a school depending on their needs such as place, course, size of school. Some clients prefer to study at a small school, while others prefer to study at a middle-sized school.”
The agents who expressed a preference for working with small independent schools usually said this was due to the possibility of forming close personal relationships with staff members. Kurt Gammerschlag from College Council in Germany says, “The anonymous bureaucracy of the big chain is totally different from the small management, where you can talk to the boss, the accountant, the coordinator, the teacher, the accommodation service etc. The chains are big ships that move slowly and are bound to centralised policy,” he relates.
Agents also value continuity in their dealings with school partners, a factor that is more likely to be found in a small family-run school rather than large chain organisation where employees get promoted or leave for new jobs. Christina Starr Bonacossa from The International School in Italy says, “In a small school, you usually deal with the same owner year after year and create a personal relationship. In a chain there is turnover so you do not know who you will be dealing with from one year to the next. In a small school, if an owner promises you something, they will remember and stand by it. In a large chain, you might receive promises from one person and when your client gets to the school, that person may not even work there anymore and your client encounters problems.”
According to Elizabet Guelmino from Egida International Language and Communication Centre in Hungary, long-term personal contact with members of staff can mean more flexible working conditions. “I personally have always worked with smaller organisations where I have known and befriended the staff, where the staff knew my students’ names and requirements,” she says. “Regarding commission and working procedures, small schools can be more flexible to mutual benefit,” she says.
However, the centralised administration services of a chain school can have their advantages, as Marina Martins from internStudy in the UK acknowledges. “From an administrative point of view, a large chain is sometimes better to work with as the procedures are more standardised,” she says. And Evan Mackay from Learn Away in Canada adds, “The most noticeable difference is that chains have more rigid and often smoother procedures less personal but with less surprises. A chain generally has a policy already written in stone.”
When it comes to areas where chain schools win out over their independent counterparts, agents generally point to the more extensive facilities usually available at chain schools and also the greater range of courses for students. Shirley Beck from The New Language Institute in Switzerland says that this is particularly important when looking for higher level courses, such as the Cambridge proficiency exam. “Smaller schools are not always able to offer the course you’re looking for,” she says.
Larger student numbers and greater financial resources also mean that chain schools often are more likely to have the most up-to-date teaching aids and are able to offer students top-of-the-range facilities. An example of this can be seen in the recent spate of new building work being conducted by some chain schools in the UK, including International House London’s new building and Study Group’s new study centre and halls of residence in Brighton (see Language Travel Magazine, May 2007, page 6).
Quality can also be a factor that is associated with chain language schools as a standardisation of courses and facilities mean that agents can trust branches of a chain even when they are not personally acquainted with each individual school. For some agents, this makes the process of offering courses in new locations easier as they do not have to make personal visits to every school in a chain. Martins says that this can make chain schools more attractive. “They offer a standardised and guaranteed service, no matter where you are whether in Toronto or Cape Town, the same service is provided,” she says.
The well known name of a chain school may attract better teachers, according to Beck, which could in turn lead to them offering a higher quality of language tuition. Although, she adds, “On the other hand, when they need so many extra teachers during the busy summer period, it’s always possible that they can’t always recruit teachers with the same high level of experience and expertise.”
When it comes to commission payments, opinion is divided as to whether chain schools or independent schools give agents the better deal. Tagutschi in Switzerland says that commission rates at chain schools are slightly higher than at independent schools and it makes sense that agents sending high volumes of students to various centres of a chain school would be rewarded with better rates of commission.
However, Silvia Arredondo from Nacel Mexico says that the increased flexibility involved in working with an independent school can mean that better rates can be negotiated. “It is always easier to get good commissions on the small independent schools where you send many students,” she confirms. “And it is usual for them to give some help promoting their school.”
Gammerschlag in Germany says that when it comes to paying commission, chain schools often make it easier by having “one
The clients’ views
When it comes to the students themselves, agents report that most are largely unaware of the benefits of an independent school versus a chain school and rely on the agency to inform them as to the best school for their needs. Colin Furness from ALP Addestramento Linguistico Professionale in Italy says, “The vast majority of my clients have no knowledge of individual schools and so the question does not arise. The better informed have some idea of quality assurance associated with British Council accreditation and that’s as far as their market understanding goes.”
Evan Mackay from Learn Away in Canada agrees. “Learn Away clients tend to trust the experience of their agency,” he says. “Our clients usually express little interest in whether a school is part of a chain.”
Some agencies, however, report that a small percentage of their clients actively request to study at a chain school. “Very young children want to be in a chain school because they think they will get to know more nationalities and it will be more fun,” says Pilar Garreta from GIC Educational Consultants in Spain, who adds that 30 per cent of their clients request a chain school.
Mansuk Bae from KAMC in Korea says that a similar percentage of their clients request a course at a chain school from the outset. “Thirty per cent of our students choose a chain because of reliability,” he says. “[Independent] and smaller schools can [disappear].”