Italian PON scheme expands for 2014

20 March, 2014

The Italian PON funding scheme for school group study abroad language courses has expanded for 2014, offering a significant opportunity for the country's agency industry.

Managed by the Italian Ministry of Education and covered by European Structural Funds, the PON scheme is dedicated to four provinces in the south of Italy: Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia.

Secondary schools in these provinces can apply for funds to cover groups of between eight and 15 students from the third, fourth or fifth years of secondary education to undertake three- or four-week language courses overseas, with scholarships of €2,500 (US$3,477) and €3,375 (US$4,694) available per student. Teachers accompanying groups can also receive funding for a course.

All European languages are eligible, although the vast majority will be expected to head to the UK for English programmes. Courses must be taken between April and November.

The scheme requires that all students must take an entry and an exit test as well as a final external exam. All elected students will need to demonstrate a minimum level of linguistic competence: A2 for third year students; B1 for fourth and fifth year students.

Lorenzo Agati, Director of WEP agency and President of Italian agency association Ialca, said, “The aim of the programme is to improve the language skills of the students from vocational, technical and linguistic high schools to allow them to have better chances of employment and a better university career.”

Regarding the impact on the industry, Agati said, “We expect a primary role for agencies: as the students must be provided with the language course, accommodation, flight ticket and insurance, we think our effort will be necessary to provide first-quality service, and this will be beneficial for the industry as well as the students involved.

“Although not all Ialca agencies are involved with PON, many members have already been involved in the past and their experience will help building, together with UK schools, the best programmes,” he added.

Marina La Mattino, Director of agency Avec Tour Operator, said she had not yet received many enquiries, but expected more in the summer for travel in September and October, as most of the regions have only recently closed the application periods from schools for funding. “The PON scheme depends on the region, and most are still deciding,” she said. 

Steps Accademia delle Lingue, a language school and outbound agent based in the Campania region, is hoping for a return to previous levels of activity in the PON scheme. A spokesperson for the agency confirmed they had no groups in 2013, compared with 42 in the previous year. However, she said she expected a competitive market among agents for the PON business this year.

Henry Tolley, Head of Business Development at Trinity College, one of the eligible external English language exam boards, welcomed the increased funding for 2014, and explained that this year’s model is very different to the previous round in 2012, with longer trips, more money available and more participating students.

Tolley expressed some concerns that language schools in the UK may not be fully prepared for the numbers coming. “Many of the groups will be looking to come in September, especially students about to start university who can get credits for their language course. Therefore, the summer-only providers won’t be able to cater to these students.” Tolley is making a presentation about this year’s PON scheme at the English UK AGM in May.

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