15 May 2008

Are you one out of many? Become one out of two!

It’s only simple maths. Being in a neighbourhood with 10 competitive foreign language schools, you are one out of ten. Quality factors and parameters may boost or repress your chances, so it’s pretty unlikely that you and your competitors will take a share of 10% of the local student population each. Still you are one out of ten. Does it sound cynical? It shouldn’t. Especially now, when most private language schools are thinking about their promotional campaigns. How could your school not just be one out of ten when most possibly you will:

a) Invest in a campaign that statistically will cost you an average of 6,500 EUR for the period of mid-August to end-September, along with a few more thousands of private language school owners in Greece. The majority of your direct competitors are, of course, included.
b) This campaign will mainly consist of printed material, with photography or illustration possibly showing snapshots of your school’s activities, happy children’s faces and the usual and self-explanatory information of what you offer. This is preparation for all “recognized” examinations and certificates, levels from A Junior to C2, possibly pre-junior “free” classes and computer assisted learning sessions. Actually, the more you can squeeze onto each double-page spread the better.
c) You will back up your advertising material with small useful objects, like rulers, timetable charts, pencil cases, etc. to be distributed outside schools or central gathering locations.
d) You will invest a lot of effort in convincing everyone that you have developed the best methods, co-operate with the best teachers and that you use the best publications around.
e) You will promise small classes with individual care to each student.
f) You will mention the accrediting body, local association, nation-wide federation, club, closed examination centre, etc., of which you are a member, as proof of acknowledgement by peers in your field.
Parents will, most possibly, have made up their mind by then as to where they’re going to send their child. They are convinced that all schools offer the same service, prepare for the same “valid” exams, and have small classes and lots of “successes” on their windows. They will have asked around their own neighbourhood which school is “better”, less strict or stricter, more or less generous with grades, more or less hours per week. In the end they will consider which school is closer, not across a big road, cheaper, offers classes on the evenings when shops are open, and most importantly which school their child’s friends are going to go to. Does this mean that parents’ criteria are so humble and low? No, it means that your school is one out of many, so for it to be chosen, it has to satisfy the above criteria as well.
If you want your school to be the “chosen” one, you cannot be one out of many, but must become one out of two. You should be on one side and all the others on the other. To achieve this, there’s only one way; your unique selling point. Moreover, your unique selling point must be promoted in a unique way, as this point is not one individual thing, but your school’s whole entity through a characteristic that becomes a “flag”, a projected identity.
This unique selling point must make the potential customer think: “hmmm, it’s still worth overlooking the four language centres on my way there, and actually, I don’t mind paying 40 Euros more per year and having to take my child there twice a week myself!”
What could this be, though, that could make all the others look so outstandingly the same and at the same time you so different to them?
Everything starts with the service you provide. This service is only tuition and exam preparation in a world where parents don’t expect anything more than that. Still, if they see that there is something beyond that, their expectations change. Then your service includes the “experience” of the parent and your student in your school in ways that are tangible and measurable for them. At the moment what you promise takes place in class, and the parent (decision maker) experiences it filtered through their child. For a parent to pay attention, the experience has to be outstanding and involving.
Let’s run through the same list of what you would normally do, but in a rather unique way, from the end to the beginning:
a) Instead of talking about your memberships, have peer members do this for you. Talk to colleagues of other, not competitive areas and ask for testimonials, even invite them to talk at an event about your cross-area reputation.
b) Instead of falling into the trap of promising individual care through small classes, establish individual personality tests and lesson plans based on them. Train your teachers and talk to the parents on that basis and turn your incredible teaching methods into an unrepeatable learning experience for your students. Assess parents’ involvement in co-operation with their children and make the latter reflect on that.
c) Instead of promising the best publications around, organize events, campaigns, newsletters and presentations of who the publisher is, locally and internationally, who the author is, their teaching experience, their international recognition, their success, and have these people do the same for you. Prove that your school is not just a figure for the publisher, but a centre acknowledged by them.
d) Instead of investing money in objects that will be thrown away, invest in building a striking visual corporate identity and printing documents and materials based on that. Make sure these reach your current and potential customers regularly, inspire your community with your organization and gravity in your field.
e) Instead of throwing out money only in September, “throw” your news, achievements, unique selling points, testimonials, announcements and awards to the public on a regular basis, until your prevalence becomes “second nature” to everybody in your area.
f) Create a plan and an implementation policy that is comprehensive enough for your staff to follow and do not forget my COMPOSE theory.
Couldn’t all this make you one out of two? It’s only simple maths after all.

02 April 2008

Can you choose your path within the field? Say, I CAN!

For the past few years that I have been writing this column, I have also implied that there are two different, however related, needs of the market that the average language school is serving. One is that of teaching a foreign language to the extent that the student is going to acquire it as a personal means of communication. The other is that of preparing examination candidates for personal accreditation in the usage of the foreign language. These two targets have always co-run, but still they have never been and can never be the same thing.
Using a language is not only a matter of possessing the structural elements of this communicative code. Using a foreign language is about a whole cultural awareness framework in when and how the user synthesizes these structural elements, how he/she personalizes this synthesis, how confidence is built within him/her and, eventually, how language usage confidence reflects on personalization and evolves along the evolution of the actual language.
Such a complex process can never reflect any assessment system or examination that is carried out industrially. The role of such an assessment system is to assure a minimum standard, without, though, being able to prove that performance at an examination reflects that minimum standard of language awareness, rather than just a good knowledge of the language required to pass the specific exam.
The truth is that blind dedication to any sort of accreditation in our country, for reasons that I have explained in the past, has inflated any stream serving the one of the two paths, especially that of exam preparation. There are so many available standard materials, presenting standard techniques to reach a standard exam, mainly requiring standard instructional (and not teaching) styles. For such a standard environment, how could it not be that anybody who can basically understand this environment (i.e. just any English Lit degree holder and any CPE holder) opens a language centre and runs it? You see, this is not about language teaching, but about exam preparation and coaching.
With Greece moving into the phase of maturity as a free economy, whatever market pressures and competition have been like so far, I feel real adult pressure and competition hasn’t knocked on our door yet, but is not so far from it any more either.
The Super Market concept flourished in Greece after the mid-eighties. What happened then? A change of legislation, adapting our law to European law brought major chains (remember Continent?) to our country. The concept is simple. The same consumers were customers to different kinds of retailers and suppliers. The supermarket brought all different products together into one place, thus enabling the consumer to use his/her time more effectively, find better prices due to more effective distribution and product allocation, and enjoy convenience.
In the same respect, an exam preparation product can be one of the products that will be compiled along with other products and services that are of our consumers’ interest. Think how many more subjects our students have to take on, and how many more kinds of exams (computers, panhellenic exams, etc.) a student has to prepare for. If exam preparation is so straightforward for somebody that qualifies legally, then it is only a matter of legislation to enable such “training supermarkets” to occur.
However, at a time when supermarkets in Europe have become such a “trade power” (i.e. in the UK, as mentioned before, there are 5 groups that literally run the whole market), more and more people discover the value of high quality food or goods and invest money in that quality. These consumers are determined to pay more for the benefit of the substance and specialty, rather than mass production and packaging. A young family with small children invests in organic food, high quality fabrics, and the best possible education. There are two factors to facilitate that: one is the requirement of the young family being able to afford it, while the second is that a young family has been trained / convinced about the benefit of the specialist.
An overview of what, almost definitely, is going to happen, shows the need of redefining what “real quality education” is. The need for certificates and accreditation will always be there, and nobody can query their part of basic skills assurance that is needed. However, it is also definite that if a “training supermarket” is to invest in real quality, it will not be viable. In fact, no matter whether a change in legislation allows computer schools, Greek frontisteria, IIEK, and other private training centres to teach foreign languages, their viability relies on strictly standardized programmes, first due to a lack of expertise and second due to a lack of ability to manage relevant resources.
On the other hand, the viability of private language schools relies on the substantive investment in their specialty. Serving a market in ways that obviously any other business that serves the same market can, will just increase your direct competition and decrease your market share immensely.
A code of practice and a new definition of the training required will enhance the role of a few and specific language schools. The well planned communication to the parents and students community will create a need for that, at least among those who consciously believe in the value of providing their children with “the best”.
Therefore, can you choose the right path for your future viability? It is the difficult path of professional virtue. So lucky am I to have already worked with a bunch of all those who can confidently say “I can”. Actually, they say “I have”.

19 February 2008

Answer this; "Eparkeia" for CPE holders

Dear Yannis,
I am a school owner, English teacher, holder of BA degree, an ex South-African residing in Limnos for the past sixteen years( an ardent reader of your column too.)
Would you be so kind as to shed some light on the' eparkeia' issue? Has all talk of banning this blatant unfairness fallen through?
Isn't it about time the relevant Greek ministries reconsidered priorities as to what truly constitutes proper teaching qualifications, or are they content with the fact that any individual in the possession of a meager Proficiency certificate qualifies as a fully trained teacher. Where is the ELT field in this country heading?
Suddenly, a new wave of beginner teachers, come school owners, some of who I might add can hardly string a sentence together ,are now conveniently stifling the market, in which most prospective client-parents are completely unaware of the difference between a Proficiency-holder school owner,(more often than not, lacking in basic knowledge, let alone teaching skills),as opposed to a university graduate whose qualifications are based on years of in-depth analysis on classics, literary criticism, poetry, not to mention teacher training and seminars.
My question is-how much longer are we expected to tolerate this arrogant high-handedness on behalf of the 'know-it-alls'? Can we hope for some sanity in this matter?
Your insight and opinion will be greatly appreciated. Many thanks,
Eleftheria Borou..

Dear Ms Borou,

Many thanks for your e-mail. The issue you are addressing in your e-mail has been a burning issue for many ELT professionals and especially school owners for many years, even from the time I was a student at a frontisterio. I can understand your frustration and the frustration of the hundreds of alumni of corresponding schools throughout the world as well as the Greek universities. However, to be in a position to analyse this issue in depth, we have to see to what extent your statement, shared by a major part of Greek ELT, represents reality in legal and institutional terms.
The State is legally, institutionally and constitutionally responsible of accrediting and recognizing teaching qualifications and teachers within the official educational system and the official school network in all educational levels. However, frontisteria have never been legally or institutionally recognized as schools. What would define the role of frontisteria in a rather wide sense of the term is “foreign language training / coaching centres”. The State is legally and institutionally happy to grand the permit of ownership and operation of such centres to both university degree and eparkeia holders. Besides “trainees” in these “training centres” do not obtain a national certificate or baccalaureate or “apolytirio” of national/state value, so as for the legality of the status of these centres and the people who work in it to be questioned.
We all understand that the “eparkeia” was institutionalized a few decades ago to solve the problem of the lack of qualified English teachers, but it was also an agreed term between the Greek government and the respective universities/accrediting bodies, in order for their product to become more appealing, along with the “recognition” of their certificates in other areas of the State sector.
However, it is pretty obvious that this institutionalization solely concerned the private training sector and more specifically the frontisteria. The State, as an employer, never recognized “eparkeia” holders as “qualified language teachers” for itself and this is pretty significant. When the first frontisteria started to appear in the Greek market the Greek State introduced what it judged to be the minimum criteria for teaching and running a frontisterio in the private sector. In this way, the State provided a solution to existing problems, i.e. a lack of specialists, foreseen unemployment, external relations with international bodies and so on. It was then that a new industry was born and associations of representatives started to appear that should have formed more specific criteria, something that never happened, however. You see, in a society always driven by the State and the dream of being employed by it, no one saw the opportunity given by it to create and run a separate private sector alongside the State sector, in full legality.
The situation with frontisteria and their raison d’être has been a problematic one for almost a decade now. However, one would have to admit that you can find incompetent and untrained teachers among university graduates as well. While I am glad to sense the effort, in depth training and self-reflection you have been investing in regarding your profession, we all know that the vast majority of foreign language teachers and frontisterio owners, regardless of their qualifications, have limited themselves and their self-development to “executing” instructions from teachers’ books pages (in the best case scenario). We travel throughout the country just to see people, both university degree and eparkeia holders, who cannot teach or even speak the foreign language they are expected to teach and still legitimately run their frontisteria.
As from the beginning of my professional input I have clearly outlined my objections to the way this whole industry operates, allow me to amplify and transfer your frustration to our readers’ community, through the following questions:
a) With the massive ASEP waves of the last 2 or 3 years and hundreds of teachers joining the State sector, who would work in the frontisteria if it weren’t for the eparkeia holders? Already this academic year has been the worst in terms of recruitment.
b) Who says that a qualified teacher who graduated from university 25 years ago and has only received training in the form of commercial presentations at exhibitions is a better teacher than an eparkeia holder who has regularly been attending further methodology training and self-development courses?
c) If the eparkeia and all the “recognitions” hadn’t been institutionalized, would the Greek public have shown any interest in the frontisteria and would this industry have existed and flourished in the first place?
d) Why have associations and representatives consumed whole decades in trying to get “State recognition” for an association generated certificate, rather than introducing and setting specific professional teaching standards in both the State and private sectors?
e) Why has everybody been bothered with the question of who should be qualified to be a teacher and not with what those qualified teachers do for themselves and their teaching afterwards, both in the private and State sectors?
f) Anywhere else in the world I would never imagine that a teacher does not hold a university degree. However, nowhere in the world is there one foreign language frontisterio per thousand people, providing exactly the same standardized kind of service (along of course with the few thousand private instructors of course). (read “A tale of two parallel worlds” , December 2005 at http://hyphenpedia.blogspot.com)

Personally, the way things are, I feel that any dramatic development regarding the eparkeia would cause more problems than it would solve. I believe that every effort and the money invested in private Greek ELT should concern quality controls in frontisteria currently operating and offering questionable services. Besides, this explains why the State has never recognized frontisteria as schools per se.

Yours faithfully,

Yannis Stergis

03 January 2008

The Student Quest vs the Teacher Quest - Secrets and lies of Greek ELT

This year we have had the lowest turnout of junior students of the past 10 years throughout the country. This is definitely something to be further observed and analysed, without rushed assumptions. Low numbers of junior students also appeared in 1998 and 2001, but not to the extent of 2007. However, this earlier phenomenon provided enough motivation for a unique research that took place in October and November this year, investigating the overall attitude of the Greek public towards learning foreign languages and the role of Foreign Language Centres in Greece.

The Student Quest
We talked to parents of students in Greece and explained the philosophy behind quality accreditation criteria with reference to the existing criteria for Foreign Language Schools in Greece, coming from schemes like the ones of Secondary education, QLS and HCQLE. The sample below comes from 500 parents (35% Athens, 15% Thessaloniki, 50% rest of Greece).

Important note: This market research took place from 1st October until 7th December 2007. It included parents from schools we service (approx. 20%) and parents from the wider area of each school (approx. 80%). The results talk for themselves, but there will be an in-depth qualitative analysis at a later stage.

Question 1:
Do you consider the existence of such quality assessment criteria important or even compulsory (sine qua non)?
460 (92%) answered compulsory – 40 (8%) answered important

Question 2:
Would you pay 20% more for your children’s foreign language school for the attainment and maintenance of such criteria?
28 (5.6%) – Yes, definitely
124 (24.8%) – No, can’t afford it and for now my job is done without such criteria being followed
138 (27.6%) – These criteria should anyway be compulsory to all schools without us having to pay more for them
210 (42%) – No; If these criteria were met by day schools, private or state ones, we wouldn’t need to send our children to foreign language centres.

Question 3:
What do you believe makes one foreign language centre better than others?
65 (13%) – Same result for fewer hours weekly and less money (value for money)
9 (1.8%) – Methodology and teaching
191 (38.2%) – Nothing necessarily, all do the same job – ours is more convenient/pleasant/cheaper
235 (47%) – Examination results by word of mouth

Question 4:
Have you ever considered private lessons?
372 (74.4%) – Yes
94 (18.8%) – Yes, for later when kids are older and have too much to deal with
34 (6.8%) – No, I don’t believe it’s good for my child

Question 5:
Do you believe in lifelong education – would you attend foreign language classes yourself?
58 (11.6%) – Yes, actually I need to for specific reasons
168 (33.6%) – No, it’s not worth it, I don’t need it in my everyday life or at work
210 (42%) – Yes, if my employment supported my decision
64 (12.8%) – Yes, but I have serious time/money restrictions

Question 6:
Have you heard of the Common European Framework of Reference in Education, the role of personality tests and learning styles, respective methodology and lesson plans, learning independence?
492 (98.4%) – No, what is this?
2 (0.4%) – Yes
6 (1.2%) – I think so

During the same research we also reached the following conclusions:
a) No more than 12-13% of the student population chooses private lessons for foreign languages.
b) Dedicated clients do not get affected by minimal differences in tuition fees from school to school.
c) We learnt about the full range of professional accreditation schemes, criteria and combined-skill tests of organizations like City and Guilds, who have recently appeared here, as well as relevant course providers like Master-D in Thessaloniki, a member of an international chain mainly active in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and recently in Greece. It seems that many of the adults we spoke to were introduced to these through their work environment and the predominant idea is that they represent the private training centres of the near future.
d) Parents do not have a clue about what the average owner or teacher considers their competitive advantage to be.
e) That, though a massive percentage of private language schools are run by people who are under qualified (especially in Attica), the public does not have the criteria to judge.
The Teacher Quest
Another major issue that our field had to deal with this year was a shortage of experienced teachers. Reasons for this phenomenon admittedly lie with the fact that a substantial number of teachers chose the State sector (and privates in the evenings of course) through the latest couple of ASEP competitions. However, by reviewing the impact of different annually agreed teaching hourly rates in Attica and the rest of Greece, we discovered a vicious circle.

We all understand that € 7 / hour is impossible to live on, not just anywhere in Europe, but especially in Greece. However, Attica seems to be the market where school owners created a competitive advantage around their tuition fees the most, thus devaluing their service. It is not by chance that in “posh” suburbs of Attica we found “well established frontisteria” selling the level of FCE for 750 EUR annually, when the average in the rest of the country is no less than 1100 EUR. It is only fair that most of the time, with the programmes imposed by books available in the market, an average school can’t afford substantially higher wages for the teachers.

Once upon a time, a teacher would ensure at least a few hours a week at a school just for her/his IKA. However, it has become more and more of common knowledge that a teacher can be providing undeclared private lessons for slightly more and cover their own IKA through “aftasfalisi”.

At the same time, looking at things from another point of view, in order to make a parent pay more, one has to provide obvious added value. However, I can’t help but observing the following:
a) We have devised business and educational plans, both in Attica and in the rest of Greece, where teachers get paid up to 25% more than average. However, even these schools lost and had to replace some of their oldest (and most demanding teachers), who just refused to do more substantial work than a Teacher’s Book-led lesson, for the extra money. The resistance received at the beginning of the implementation of each plan was immense.
b) Apparently teachers who choose private lessons over FLSs do it just to maintain the comfort of the same old quality for more money (nothing wrong with that for as long as it is acceptable)
c) We are witnessing the creation of a dual speed school ownership and teaching; with the most known ones fading slowly but surely.
I hope all this raw material above is good food for thought and I wish you all a fruitful New Year.