15 December 2005

A tale of two parallel worlds

In a small Latin American country, in 1947, a major decision had to be made by the unstable local Government. The country had just gained its independence, thus they had to organize a new National Guard. Typhus, diphtheria and malnutrition were wiping out whole local communities. The National Guard, as a specialized army needed healthy men and women, well trained, but most of all capable of physically dealing with the challenges of the jungle and the rainforests, the guerilla attacks and sabotages, the unfairly superior war machine of the foreign powers. However, there were only 760 local medical doctors and 4,500 nurses to serve a population of about 14 million people.
International pharmaceutical companies spotted the urgent need for vaccination, as the rest of health improvement parameters relating to nutrition and hygiene were of secondary priority at that point. It is great to serve the common good but even greater if you have a massive market as well. Four pharmaceutical companies came to a historical agreement with the local government that would provide long term solutions to the problem. More specifically:
1) It was particularly difficult to educate all the people about the need for vaccination. However, people would respond easier if they had an incentive. Being struck by poverty, everybody wanted a safe position in the National Guard and subsequently the whole State mechanism. A beneficial solution for everybody would be for the Government to establish a certificate of vaccination as a pre-requisite for every applicant, but also for every new student in every school.
2) As the Government’s medical resources could not support the existing demand, the consortium of the four companies offered to train responsible individuals in:
a. Basic principals of hygiene
b. How to give injections and control side effects
c. How to basically select and train new individuals, before they approached the consortium for the final course and certification
d. How to report to the consortium and the local Government medical authorities

These individuals would take a certificate from the consortium, recognized by the Government, which would allow them to open their own small “vaccination” clinics. These clinics could only provide the above two services, i.e. vaccination and basic hygiene consultancy.

The consortium would make money from sales of vaccination jabs. However, the need for a good job, as the State had a limited number of applicants it could hire every year, grew and this led thousands of potential clinic owners to apply for training and certification. Within the next few years the consortium saw that they could decide on a nominal fee to apply for every course and certificate granted.

The truth is that the system worked. In less than 7 years typhus and diphtheria disappeared from this country, which by the way has been disease-free since then. On top of that, the knowledge gathered over the years by the clinic owners improved the quality of services offered, many of these individuals attended extra courses, some of them even officially studied medicine and turned their clinics into proper general health care units. However, as an established para-medical field, it flourished to include 60,000 clinics in a country that, due to demographic changes, now has a population of about 12 million people. The State has not changed the out-dated law in the past 55 years, so officially these medical units are “vaccination clinics” and recognized as such. Viability stress has obliged the owners and their successors to focus on what they know best; vaccinations and basic hygiene consultancy. The worst thing is that the rest of the population, still functioning within an out-dated legal system still ask for their vaccination certificates in order to get a good position in the State mechanism, or open their own clinic. Since the people are asking for that, this is what clinics offer and a vicious circle has been created, maybe with no way to break it.

International observers in 2004 reported that this small country has been impressively disease free and products contributing to everyday hygiene sell like nowhere else. However, this country has the highest rates of child obesity, heart diseases, strokes and female cancer in Latin America.

The unions of the clinics throughout the country are aware of the overall health problem, as many of their local community members happened to apply for a job in the U.S. Their application was turned down due to their medical history. However, they all have a vaccination certificate.

The consortium of the four companies still exists, contributing to health improvement in other poor countries and just receiving nominal fees for the thousands of jabs sold in that little country every year. On top of that other, technologically more improved jabs have arrived in the market, along with other companies producing and distributing hygiene products, antiseptics, syringes, etc.

Vaccination certificate applicants of the public have a clinic next to their place. They take the whole process for granted and the priority of health improvement, along with the vaccination itself, has been degraded from number one priority to a standard presupposition. They never budget even for the nominal fees and sometimes they disappear, using another clinic for their annual booster jab.

The big challenges vaccination clinic owners come across are:
1) How do they prove that their clinic is the best compared to the competition in terms of good service, complete side-effect control, pleasant environment, and compliance with hygiene standards?
2) How do they manage the public?
3) How do they educate the public, as the consortium had to do decades ago, for them to understand that good health is ensured partly through vaccination, but without proper nutrition and on-going health care, good health cannot be guaranteed?

In that world public health is depending on such a system and expecting such answers. In a parallel world, the Greek ELT, education is expecting similar answers too.

15 July 2005

Dealing with adults

Since the beginning of our co-operation with schools it has been pretty obvious that the adult students’ issue is rather a painful one. Adult classes are necessary, but at the same time they are problematic, actually for the same reasons throughout the country. We started our 2005 annual market research focusing on the adult market and here are some interesting and useful results, I hope, ideas.
First of all, this year’s research methods became a bit more sophisticated. We approached a respectable sample of about 1200 employed adults as well as a smaller sample of about 800 tertiary education students. However, our research did not consist of only a set questionnaire, but an amazing 40% of both samples accepted to fill in a more in depth personal questionnaire, along with a short placement test in English!
It was amazing to see that 48% of the employed adults and 68% of the university students claimed to hold a B2 certificate, while 24% of them held a higher certificate as well, equal to C1 or C2. The average time since they took the examination successfully was about 11 years ago.
The shocking results of the second, more in depth research that took place exclusively amongst the adults that had a certificate, showed that their certificate hardly reflected their level of English! More specifically, the placement test we gave them showed that part of the sample could slightly reach B1 level, with the majority to confidently perform up to A2. Only 4% of the sample that moved onto the secondary level of our research proved to know in practice the foreign language up to the level that their certificate reflected.
The tasks given were highly related to their specific needs of using a foreign language, i.e. dealing with everyday and work environment spoken language requirements, and written forms to be encountered in a work and social environment, like application forms, short reports, faxes and e-mails. The tasks for the university students community included application forms, cover letters, letters of reference, CVs and short essays.
Interviewing managers or employers with activity in other countries, we saw that very few of them were confident enough to rely on their knowledge of a foreign language. Usually, when they travel, they have an employee who speaks the foreign language better with them, but with a lot of compromise, or sometimes a hired interpreter, or a non-official interpreter. Actually, about 70% of the managers/employers we asked do not mind the amateurism of a relative or an acquaintance, either for on-site support or translation of documents. This is, of course, so indicative of the business practices in our country, relating to the complete lack of competitive advantages in every professional field.
Another shocking conclusion from our research was that 100% of the sample do recognise the importance of speaking at least one foreign language well, but when we moved on with the more in depth questionnaires and placement tests, the vast majority of the sample answered the following:
a) They are highly interested in examinations and certificates only if and when these are pre-requisites for employment or a promotion either in the public or private sector or for studies abroad.
b) Almost 100% of the secondary sample replied that they do not relate or connect examinations and certificates to the good knowledge of a foreign language.
c) They do not feel that the good knowledge of a foreign language is in substance so important to them, and when they need it every now and then, they think they can get by with limited knowledge or help by somebody else.
d) They do not see the good knowledge of a foreign language as a real personal competitive advantage in finding a job, as most employers do not pay the necessary attention to foreign languages proficiency.
e) They do not recognise any foreign language knowledge standard in certificates apart from their role as an official qualification if and when required by employers or agencies.

This entire attitude, if not mentality, reflects both the tendency of Greeks to consider private foreign language education a necessary evil and the lack of responsibility in business and state initiative, ambition and success. However, it also shows the need for this nation to be trained in realising what the international environment we are part of is like and what it requires. The role of the foreign language teaching community has not been exploited to the full as, apart from teachers, we should all be carriers of another mentality, promoting cultural awareness, international communication and promote or design measures against our national isolationism. As a field, we take the need of knowing and speaking a foreign language for granted and all we advertise is that we teach foreign languages at our school, and sometimes that we also do it well! Our exclusive focus on the children’s/pupils’ community, which as long as the certificates are recognised can be taken for granted, has limited our scope into how we can help our students “finish English” in as few years as possible. However, we forget that young learners themselves hardly make the decision to go to a foreign language centre by themselves. And if the situation stays as such, then the only criteria in choosing the best foreign language centre will be just the distance from home and how cheap the tuitions fees are. Not to mention of course, that 38% of foreign language centre owners have not even been to the country of the language they teach even for a week…

15 February 2005

Issues of representation - Your power is your market

Greece has never had a particularly good reputation for collective activity and representation. All professional fields are represented by their chambers and associations but participation and contribution becomes an issue only in times of difficulty or crisis, which in most cases proves to be too late. Besides, everybody wants to be a president, and usually the elected president is the one who has the time to be one.
Times, facts and prospects are changing drastically. The EU is exercising pressure on the State for a big change in FLT in our country: further incorporation of the CEF standards so that in a few years time we will not be talking about ‘foreign languages’ but about the ‘languages of Europe’, some of which must have been incorporated in the national curriculum as optional communicative and teaching tools. On top of that, the KPG will have to reach the point of compliance with the standards of a national bac level certificate.
If such a big change occurs, the role of language as a teaching subject, but also the role of our schools, ourselves as business owners and teachers, our associations, the publishers, the franchise chains and especially that of the examinations, will have to transform.
The various reactions to the above statement could be that it is all based on rumours; that the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the relevant authorities in the EU has been constantly developing and rather blurry throughout the years; that the State has proven to be to slow and that no comprehensive reform has been seriously considered over the past few years while the trade power of international examinations corpora has “saved” the day so many times.
However, this is exactly what the main weakness of the ELT field in Greece consists of: institutional uncertainty.
The relationship between the private ELT sector and the State has so far been based on a major inferiority complex. The State preserved and encouraged the development of the field as long as everything worked towards its interest. Compliance with the terms of a free market, a widespread tax source, a piloting field for the definition of needs in foreign language education, a productive field for training students towards the internationally recognised certificates, everything in fact that the State could not provide for about 40 years, was generously provided by the private frontisteria FL certificates industry.
At the same time the State, with all the political adventures of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, could not tame and recognise private businesses that literally offered what it was not in a position to offer. Especially when no major organisation can build a curriculum with an orientation to certificates that one day will be competing with its own one. The ultimate truth is that the State would never give fair credit to the private frontisteria sector.
The above oxymoron led the field to compete solely on an institutional basis. For years and years the local associations and the federation fought for several levels of institutional recognition. The recognition of the PALSO examinations and of the frontisteria as a primary instead of an auxiliary productive force, together with the setting of criteria and levels of social security, salaries and tuition fees, created the arena that literally gave the associations the role of a Union instead of that of a Chamber of FLT providers.
The result of the above misunderstanding was an even bigger oxymoron. One of the biggest national responsibilities, the foreign language training of so many generations of students, was born by a clearly private sector and its market, whereas the institutional principles and relevant legislation were defined by an observer. This private sector grew unfettered as everybody was mainly concerned with the institutional issues. School owners neglected their mission and quality standards, as long as the specific target of preparing students for the certificates was met. Publishers relied too much on this clean and specified market and let inflation overrun their publishing plans.
I know there is an end to this vicious circle. Our power is our market! The market trusts the field, as for foreign language acquisition there has been no other field around. The big issue is that the market is changing and so are its needs. Institutional changes will affect its needs even more. What do we really know about our market and how do we cater for our big responsibility towards it?
Here comes the important role of the representatives of the field. Research and overall marketing of the field should be within the main duties of every association representing tens of professionals. So far the main role of the board of each association has been how to ensure the income of the association through the organisation of events and the examinations. There were also attempts to unify and standardise the market through regulating tuition fees, free lessons and fairness of competition, overlooking, however, the market reality. What is the point of restricting the potential competitive advantages of a member, when this member is being suffocated by the promotional tricks of non-members? What are the protection and competitive advantages that the association offers to this member? Is it the assurance of higher quality? The communication to the parents of what it really means to be a PALSO member? The communication to the parents of why the tuition fees are higher and what they cover? Maybe the communication about the damage that private lessons can do to a student under certain circumstances? Is it really strange that school owners’ interest in their associations is getting less and less, while new associations are being formed under the light of common targets such as better examining conditions or quality assurance?
The existing associations should redefine the dialogue they have been holding with the Greek community, but instead of addressing themselves to the State, they can now turn their heads to the market. Greeks have proven that they are willing to pay, as long as they know that what they pay for is worth it. The problem with parents is that they take frontisteria for granted, almost as much as the public schools. We take parents and what they know about us for granted, so, in their turn, they take us for granted as well.
The messages we have drawn from the year-long market research that was published in the last ELT News issue point out that the role of the associations should focus on the following issues:
a) Define from scratch a realistic and down to earth code of practice and quality for their members and most importantly communicate this code to the parents, with all the competitive advantages that this code gives them. A client must be very clear about his/her benefits. All international and local quality assurance schemes are of private initiative and their power solely lies on the communication and marketing behind them. The only nationally driven code is the criteria the State sets for the licence of operation of a frontisterio. Such movements of associations in the UK and Spain were pointed out in my letter to the federation last summer.
b) Set specific targets for the field that will point out the long experience, know-how and expertise obtained over the years and how these can prove to be useful for the creation of a national curriculum in co-operation with the State. However, for this to happen, the field must obtain the necessary communication power within the community, with serious research and use of existing resources, that will lead to informative campaigns in the public sector and further support.
c) Expose their members to realistic legal and financial developments and techniques that will contribute to their viability. There is no point in organising seminars and commercial presentations by business consultants introduced by local chambers, when the funding programmes they present do not include private FL schools. This is rather sadistic, especially when there are legal and financial transformation plans afoot that would legally qualify a school owner for funding from the EU.
d) Create a PR department that would gather information and rally the media to contribute to their communication plans.
e) Create a research department to specify know-how export opportunities. Our market is powerful but a little bit too small.
f) Realistically face the inevitable and make friends. A healthy State system will contribute to better national functions, the elimination of black economy for the community, the resetting of targets and the creation of a clearer landscape of needs in foreign language education. The private sector will become more diverse, research and competition will boost the quality of services and lead to specialisation according to geography and target markets. Then teaching, or better tutoring, will again become a respectable service worth paying for.
g) Create a long-term business and communication plan for each association and the federation, based on the criteria of private institutions, to ensure resources for research, action, mobility and eventually viability.
The above issues can form a guide of reform for the private sector as well. These are institutional changes that take a long time to bring about and even longer to fruit. However, we should look and plan ahead to create the foundations of a strong field that will be flexible enough to meet the challenges and changes of the future. Productivity and competitiveness are only trapped in Greece because of our ‘last minute’ nature. Last minute decisions make us late followers of foreign-driven developments. And I personally dread the idea of Greece turning into the Florida of Europe. A paradise for pensioners.

15 January 2005

2004 ELT market research: A guide to creating a client benefit map

For the market explorer who is devoted to discovering what parents really consider to be benefits, market research is the only tool required in order to create a client benefit map.
A massive ELT market research project, sampling 3,072 parents and adult students from Ierapetra to Orestiada took place during 2004. At the same time, a sample of 720 foreign language schools throughout the country also gave us a clear idea of how school owners actually deal with their market but also other productive forces of the ELT market, mainly publishers.
This time the business powwow column will not analyse market tendencies but provide you with the raw research material and, hopefully, some food for thought.
The research project took place from 17th January 2004 until 17th November 2004, with a special focus on the period of June to September of the same year.
Parents and adult students
47% of the sample came from the two major cities, Athens and Thessaloniki and 53% from the rest of the country. Out of the 3,072 questionnaires, 1,771 were completed by parents, 891 by adults without children and 410 by adults whose children have already joined the employment sector.
The level of education of these people was 18% senior-higher, 22% higher, 45% secondary and 15% basic, while 18% were from foreign/immigrant populations and 82% locals/Greeks.
Among children aged 8 to 17, 59% learn a foreign language at an independent FL school, 22% at a branch of a franchise chain, 17% take private lessons, 2% rely on the public education system solely, while 6% take private lessons while also studying at a FL school.
Among students aged 8 to 12, only 38% learn a second foreign language, while this percentage reaches 54% among students aged 12 to 17.
41% of the main (8-17) age group have a PC at home and 27% have easy access to the Internet, so the 69% of these students who expressed a high interest in computer lessons is not surprising.
As far as the criteria for choosing a FL centre are concerned, 33% pointed out the success rate of the centre, 74% proximity to residence, 81% cost and level of tuition fees, 76% admitted to base their decision on personal recommendations (word of mouth), only 21% on advertising and 18%, especially in the provinces, on social obligations and personal contacts with specific school owners.
The reasons that 17% of people choose private lessons are outlined by the 80% of them who replied that their children had been overloaded with work at their previous FL school, 92% who believe that their children enjoy better supervision, only 18% because of specific learning difficulties and 42% for reasons of prestige (because they can).
As far as the people who have chosen a chain are concerned, 87% of them said they trust that chains are better organised, and 45% that payment terms are more appealing.
What is really important is that 88% of those who chose an independent FL centre, 97% of those who chose a chain and 73% of those who chose private lessons never investigate the qualifications of the teachers and the methodological targets of the lessons provided.
Also, with a trust rating system from 5 (very poor) to 1 (excellent), the three categories of FL providers, excluding the public sector, were rated by their users as follows: Independent FL centres 3, chains 4 and private teachers 2.
They all agreed that the public sector is insufficient overall (31%), incapable of orientating students to the recognised international certificates (82%) and that public teachers are not interested enough (24%).
As far as learning difficulties are concerned, 91% had never been informed by anybody about such difficulties, and 96% had never experienced such problems with their own children. 62% would expect only the private sector to provide them with guidance, as 89% do not know for sure who they could ask.
77% of parents declared that they do not get enough regular updates on their children’s progress and only 17% of those parents admitted that they have not devoted enough time to respond to the school’s calls.
56% of parents do not identify a certificate with language acquisition, while 69% are not happy with language education in Greece, but believe that the service provided by an FL centre is the best they can get.
Quality in an FL school for parents is: close supervision of each student (98%), well-trained teachers (95%), frequent parent updates (85%), good books (61%), good, safe environment and organisation (87%), and a quality certificate (only 44%).
62% of parents do not know their children’s teachers and agree that maybe that is why they insist on the school owner teaching their children, and 91% do not know their children’s books but remember how much they paid for them.
Among parents 34% could not give us the name of a FL publisher, 7% knew Express Publishing, 28% Longman and 31% Oxford University Press.
Similarly, 18% knew about PALSO, 34% knew nothing about it and 48% knew the PALSO exams.
If foreign certificates stopped being recognised, 38% would still send their children to an FL centre, but the vast majority of them only after their children were aged 12 or over.
46% judge the language level of their children from how they respond to real life and time situations and only 12% from the child’s level of satisfaction or the school’s updates.
Adult market
From the adults that participated in our market research, only 38% could speak a foreign language well, but 59% admitted that they would like to learn one or improve the one they speak. Unfortunately only 28% would like to learn a second one.
56% need to learn or improve a foreign language for work reasons, but 26% for the Internet. Only 11% require it for further studies.
44% would choose private lessons or a small group and only 21% an independent FL centre, while 27% believe that one major problem is that there are not enough adult-specialised teachers around.
Only 33% of the adult market declared themselves to be active PC users and 41% believe in computer-assisted learning, especially with the wide use of Internet resources. 81% of the adults had never heard of in-house funded training, but only 48% would be interested in finding out about it.
77% admitted that they would consider starting a foreign language and that the main criterion would be the funding.
Foreign Language Centres
Out of the 720 independent FL centres sampled, 170 had less than 70 students, 340 had from 70 to 150 students, 190 had from 150 to 400 students and 20 had more than 400 students.
Rating the biggest problems from 5 (not important) to 1 (major), overall they gave 2 to competition and field saturation, 2 to lack of adequate representation from their associations, 1 to private lessons, 2 to chain branches, 3 to demographic problems, 3 to the relation of low tuition fees against high expenses, 4 to non-paid fees, 4 to the public sector. However, 67% of school owners admitted to have actively given private lessons in 2004 themselves.
Their criteria in choosing books lie with marketing and support by the publishers by 91% and sample copy policy by 77%, while 24% pointed out the cost of books and 38% the methodology and CEF-R compatibility.
72% work with a maximum of 3 publishers, 21% with as many as they know well enough and only 7% say that they do not have any particular preferences.
As far as business practice is concerned, only 11% enjoy what we could call a “regular entrepreneurial fee”, while 47% admit that they need support with administrative and business organisation and planning and 79% with their marketing. 2% say they are satisfied enough but 8% see no future in the field. However, 64% are expecting the next generation in their family to take over in the next few years.
36% of the school owners teach from 15 to 25 hours weekly and 21% more than 25 hours weekly, while 45% of the total number does not use an accountant.
12% do not believe that anything could change in the long run in the ELT field, while 38% believe that market-driven major changes have already started to take place. Only 8% believe that publishers or foreign language certification providers can affect changes in the market.
55% of the school owners are initially interested in quality certification, but 81% of them only for marketing reasons and only 17% to enjoy the benefits of a better organised school.
88% of the school owners do not believe in collective representation any more as 62% are disappointed with the lack of focus.
72% of the school owners believe they are far better than their competition and only 2% admit to be average with lots of space for improvement.
Hyphen does not pass judgement on the above answers. We perceive the above map as a reality we all have to deal with and make the best of. We will be happy to send out the actual charts showing many more questions and answers and easy-to-read figures. Just e-mail me at info@hyphen.gr.