English UK is an association of language learning centres throughout the UK. To be a member, the school must first become accredited by the British Council. The British Council inspectors visit the centre and assesses whether it meets various criteria. Each school must be inspected every four years and there is the possibility of an on-the-spot inspection. There are aspects of the criteria which, in our opinion, need to be urgently addressed but the principle of minimum quality standards policed by an external body is an important one on which we can definitely agree.
The problem is that there exists a perception amongst many teachers and students that the whole experience of going to study in the UK is far from satisfactory, that students get a very poor return on their “investment”. Moreover, that this is not only true of non English UK schools but English UK (British Council accredited) centres too. Many of the complaints revolve around the accommodation and host family but courses themselves also come under criticism. I am sure that most teachers and students will confirm that during the busy summer period, the school reception plays host to a number of unpleasant scenes where students can be seen arguing with the school administration, very often incredibly angry, and more often than not, in tears.
It is a surprise, therefore, to learn from English UK’s student complaint procedure (student complaints’ procedure according to English UK) that:
Around 400,000 students a year attend English language courses at English UK member schools, universities or colleges. We receive about 35 complaints a year…
Now the fact that over 400,000 students attend their associated schools is no surprise. They might also have added that, at a conservative estimate (here we rely on data from 2002 and make a projection), these students, along with students visting other non UK English schools generate about 4 billion pounds for the English economy (courses, accommodation, food, trips, visits, gifts etc). This is not to say 4 billion profits, but rather that the value of 4 billion pounds is being invested from abroad into the British economy.
No, what is surprising is the low number of complaints. Less than 0.01 % of those unhappy, seemingly inconsolable, students complain to English UK. Clearly we are being asked to believe that after exhausting the schools complaint procedure (what evidence is there to suggest students know such a procedure exists?) that such complaints are happily resolved.
The answer may lie in the fact that students paying for a course to help them express themselves in English, something they cannot do to their own satisfaction otherwise they wouldn’t have enrolled in the course the first place, are being told:
write in English to English UK for the attention of the Chief Executive or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems clear to us that students should be allowed to write in their own language if they prefer. Given the enormous financial turnover of the industry and the alleged small number of dissatisfied students, surely English UK can use translation services. Better still, they could reimburse the costs against the centre which the student is complaining about, giving more incentive for the school to settle the dispute in-house.
The other disturbing matter about English UK is that they positively discourage whistleblowing:
We can only deal with complaints from international students on an English language course at a member school. We cannot accept complaints…….. from teachers or other staff, agents or host families about problems with schools.
This is particularly disturbing given that the British Council, who give accreditation, insist:
If the Accreditation Unit receives a complaint against an accredited provider which is a member of English UK: the complaint will be recorded and referred in the first place to English UK for investigation
Meaning, if it is from a whistleblower, there is no obligation to investigate. The first and last step is to refuse to investigate the complaint. Now as Alex Case points out:
Trinity and Cambridge ESOL have no rules about the ownership of schools that would prevent centres owned by someone with a history of bankruptcies, convictions for fraud etc from offering their Certs, just so long as the actual training staff were properly qualified and trained. The same is true for schools with British Council accreditation in the UK.
This whole self-regulation business is, therefore, open to abuse by the most unscrupulous of types and the people best placed to expose it are silenced. Perhaps this is why the English Language Gazette (no longer free on-line so not worth a direct link) had to stumble across five British Council accredited schools paying teachers under the minimum wage, the British Council were clearly incapable/unwilling to discover it for themselves. As Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said in the same article:
Qualified English language teachers are being badly exploited and receiving pay that would shame even the worst burger bars. There is a need for greater regulation of language course providers.
Otherwise put: The British Council Accreditation scheme is not fit for purpose.
Now clearly we need regulation of the industry to ensure quality courses and not just attractive logos. That means moving away from the easy supply of recently qualified teachers prepared to work for peanuts and virtually unsupported by senior staff. It means the bulk of teaching hours on general courses must be provided by trained/experience teachers. It means that all specialist courses are taught by people with the appropriate experience and qualifications. It means that new “trainee teachers” are properly supported in lesson provision. It means that host “families” need to have basic training and their facilities and services must meet minimum criteria. It means that staff and students be given a voice to highlight deficiencies in course provision and not be silenced.
It is rumoured that the British Council themselves proposed something similar but the industry claimed it could not support such “strict” guidelines and that the industry would become less regulated (i.e. abandon the scheme and subsequently reduce British Council revenue flow). In this instance English UK is rather like the 19th century factory owners who claimed that they would all go out of business if the 1847 Factory Act was passed (limiting children to 10 hour working days). The British Council appear to have accepted this logic leaving a multi-billion pound industry virtually unregulated, the English UK complaints procedure is symptomatic of that unaccountability, a withered fig leaf covering the shame of profiteering.