October 2007 issue

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Strong bonds

In many countries worldwide, language school associations exist to provide support to their member schools. In general terms, their primary functions lie in the areas of quality assurance, advocacy and marketing, although the exact nature of their remit can vary considerably. As agents are the mainstay of recruitment for many language schools, most target them with at least some of their marketing efforts. However, the extent to which they actively pursue relationships with agents differs, as does their level of recognition among agencies.

Jane Vernon Smith explores the extent of current links and discovers more plans for workshops afoot.

For some associations, agents are not central to their members’ business and therefore hardly figure in their work. At the other end of the scale, however, bodies such as English UK and the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP) in the USA, have developed extensive relations with agents, dating back many years. Associations work in different ways to develop these relationships. Their conferences are probably the most obvious example, but there are many others, including: running familiarisation (fam) trips, attending industry events, running seminars on industry-related topics, disseminating information and offering associate membership status.


Being an excellent way to promote simultaneously a destination and a group of schools, conferences are run by many of the national language school associations, as well as by the International Association of Language Centres (Ialc). The success of this form of relationship-building is well illustrated by the interest currently being shown by two associations that have not previously been involved in this area. The European Association for Quality Language Services (Eaquals) “is planning to be present at Icef Berlin for the first time in 2007, and will be looking at other opportunities to organise agents’ workshops for interested Eaquals schools”, says Chief Executive, Richard Rossner. Meanwhile, French language school association Fle.fr is also considering introducing an agent workshop, according to Director of Development, Alain Foubert.

For the Spanish association, Federación Española de Associaciones de Escuelas de Español para Extranjeros (Fedele), the annual workshop is the major focus of its agent-related activity, with around 120 agents from around the world attending the event. For English UK, meanwhile, the well known annual workshop for schools and agents is just part of a range of agent-focused activity. One advantage of holding a workshop on home territory is that it provides an ideal opportunity to add on fam trips to local schools, and this is something that is widely offered. Education New Zealand (EdNZ) does not run workshops, but each year brings around 60 agents to the country on fam trips, according to spokesperson, Stuart Boag. The association also runs a range of in-country agent training workshops and retreats.

At English New Zealand, the approach is slightly different. Rather than holding a single annual event at a location within New Zealand, it organises instead six offshore agent workshops each year. Association members are able to travel as a group to these events in order to promote themselves to agents, as Secretary of English New Zealand, Kim Renner, reports. Ialc and Quality English (QE), another international language school grouping, also believe in visiting agents on their home turf in order to forge better relations. Ialc runs “road shows” for members, while QE organises regular outbound missions to different destinations, in which its 30 members can visit a market all together, thereby creating “a bit of a splash”, as Chief Executive of QE, Carolyn Blackmore, relates. “By contacting all the agents in advance, I am able to prepare the market for the schools before they arrive themselves. Agents are, therefore, well briefed, and schools report useful meetings as a consequence,” she says.

Keeping in contact

The offer of associate membership is a practical form of relationship-building employed by US-based association, AAIEP. Chief Executive of AAIEP, Gordon Clark, reports that a number of agencies have thus gained a listing in its Profiles book, or directory, and on its website, and become entitled to receive email communications, as well as to benefit from a monthly advertisement to the association’s 270-plus member schools. Similarly, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (Acpet) builds bridges with agents through welcoming a number of them as members, and, says International Policy and Marketing Manager, Ruth Rosen, it is working to build that sector of membership.

A similar idea has been adopted by QE, which has created a “QE agent” category of membership. To be eligible, agents have to be working with at least two QE schools and references have to be obtained from them. They then have the right to use a special version the QE logo. “Contact is maintained with the agents, and every encouragement is made to ensure that business with QE schools is growing,” comments Blackmore. Such arrangements appear to be a growing trend. Boag comments that EdNZ is developing “New Zealand affiliated agent groups” in certain countries, while Ialc is currently researching the concept of an “Ialc agent”, according to spokesperson, Jan Capper.

For English UK (formerly Arels), agent relationship-building began as far back as the 1960s. Current Chief Executive, Tony Millns, reports that agent communications are now regular in both directions. Its agent database is used for issuing invitations to its annual agent fair, StudyWorld, and other events, including information workshops. In recent months, it has run two joint

Agents’ perspective

A survey of agencies in five countries makes largely positive reading for language school association executives. Three of the agencies surveyed claimed that membership of the national association was a significant factor when selecting new schools to work with.

“I attach a lot of importance to [a school] being a member of its national language schools’ association, because their tight accreditation scheme is my guarantee for quality,” says Franco Staffa, President of Italian agency, Associazione Culturale Italia-Inghilterra.

“Membership is normally an assurance of quality of teaching and service standards, and is an important factor to consider in selecting new language school partners,” agrees Director, Françoise Helfer, at Service Education Brock/IDP Education in New Caledonia. “When we have a request for a school in Europe, we would look at schools belonging to a big group or a language school association, if we did not know the school. A high percentage of the language schools we deal with belong to English New Zealand or English Australia,” she adds, “but not all.”

For France Arnaud, Director of inbound Australian agency, Boomerang Australia Studies, association membership is “important, but not essential” as a criterion for selecting partner schools. However, Austrian agent, Frank Hand, of Discover English is somewhat sceptical about the benefits. “One should always bear in mind that these organisations are, for the most part, concerned first and foremost with marketing their members. Partner schools with integrity and a good ethos would rate higher,” he indicates. The problem for agents is, of course, that it is not always easy to judge these qualities in a school. As Jenny Castillon of German agency, Go-prisma, comments, “Most of the time, we try to visit the schools ourselves and get a personal impression of quality. In cases where we can’t do that, we obviously need to rely on association judgements.” For her, association membership is “a plus and a guarantee for good quality, but not a criterion for a good business relationship.”

As to other aspects of the work of language school associations, not surprisingly, their workshops gain the most recognition with the agents surveyed. Staffa comments, “I have attended the Brighton Arels [now English UK’s StudyWorld] fair several times in the past, followed by fam trips. I am glad I did, and I still book students in some of the schools I visited. A language school association,” he explains, “can help me identify a reliable school in an area where I do not have personal contacts.” Hand comments further that the MEI~Relsa association workshop in Ireland proved helpful in enabling him to meet a good number of school owners and representatives in the same place at the same time – and he added that he appreciated the chance to meet other agents and “compare notes”.

Workshops apart, the only other language association service given a positive mention by agents is the electronic newsletter, which Staffa views as a relatively non-invasive way for associations to provide them with updates. Overall, however, there is little doubt that language school associations are principally known and valued by agents above all for their role in quality assurance.

The wider view

While agents are to a greater or lesser extent aware of the national language school associations in the countries to which they send students, there are many other language school groupings the world over, that may be less familiar to them, but that can also provide a useful focal point for researching new contacts.
Among them are:

The Andalusian Association of Spanish Schools for Foreigners (AEEA) was a founder member of the Spanish national association, Fedele, as well as of The European Federation of Associations for the Teaching of Mother Tongue Languages to Foreign Nationals (Elite). Today representing 27 private Spanish language schools in the Andalusia region of Spain, AEEA’s primary focus is upon quality of teaching, with quality standards based on those of Fedele and Elite.

Canadian organisation, International Public School Education Association of British Colombia (Ipsea) is an association representing 37 of British Colombia’s 60 public school districts, much of whose work with students is in the area of teaching English. Ipsea carries out a range of functions similar to many national language school associations. “We network with each other, share information, provide professional development for our members, lobby local, provincial and national governments and represent our members at the national level,” enumerates Executive Coordinator, Marg Davis. Although Ipsea does not itself pursue active relationships with agents, all its individual members work actively with them, encouraged in this by the association.

Quality English (QE) is described by Chief Executive, Carolyn Blackmore, as “not an association, but a brand marketing company, working with some of the best, carefully chosen, accredited schools worldwide”. The current membership of 30 is made up from schools in eight different English-speaking countries. “Agents are constantly on the look-out for partners they can rely on for quality courses and for a smooth, trouble-free relationship. I believe that, by bringing the QE schools to their attention, we are providing them with a very valuable service,” ventures Blackmore.

Study Illinois was founded in 2003 to promote Illinois as the destination of choice for international students in the USA. With a current membership of 42, of which just under half offer English language programmes, Study Illinois is “a state-wide consortium founded to help our members reach our intended audience with the least amount of member expense,” says spokesperson, Christine Svec.

The University Consortium of Intensive English Programs (UCIEP) was founded in 1967. Its purpose is “the advancement of professional standards and quality instruction in intensive English programmes at universities and colleges in the USA”. Spokesperson, Chuck Seibel, adds that UCIEP “provides a framework and a forum through which member programmes support, educate and inspire one another”.

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