Travel: Europe - It's an uphill learning curve

For years French law has discriminated against British ski instructors. But now the rules are changing
It was Nick Morgan's wife, Dani, who came up with the idea. As Morgan himself remembers: "We were having a discussion last Christmas about the lack of availability of good-quality, English-speaking ski instructors. And Dani said: `I don't know why you don't just start your own ski school.'"

The following day Morgan mentioned it to his sister, Liz, with whom he runs Le Ski, a Huddersfield-based company offering chalet holidays at Courchevel, La Tania and Val d'Isere. The result of their conversation was - ultimately - Le Ski School, whose four instructors (three British, one Norwegian) will take their first pupils this season at Courchevel 1650.

"It was very difficult to pre-book ski lessons with the resort's Ecole de Ski Francais [the national ski-school organisation], particularly for the busy weeks at the New Year and half-term," explains Morgan.

"We'd send faxes to its office at Courchevel 1650, and they would just lie there until mid-November when the office opened. We had to say to customers booking our chalets: `Wait until the beginning of the season, and we'll tell you whether you can have the lessons you want, with an English-speaking instructor.' It made us seem completely ineffectual. They'd ask: `You can't tell us now?' and we'd have to say: `No.'"

"Now we have a chart in our office, and we know which instructor is available for which class on the afternoon of, say 23 January - or whenever. We have a record of what each of the four instructors is doing throughout the season."

The idea is obviously a good one; but the problem is obvious, too - at least to British tour operators. For the last decade, the British Association of Ski Instructors (Basi) has been fighting a running battle with the French authorities over the right of British instructors to teach in France. Although they recognise the qualifications of Italian, Austrian, Swiss and German instructors, the French do not extend the same privilege to the British: even those trained to the top Basi level must pass a capacite test (skiing a slalom course, and then displaying "free-skiing" skills) before they are awarded equivalence, the formal approval that their skills are equivalent to those required for French instructors.

Free movement of labour is a basic principle of EU law. But in the early Nineties, France used a European directive on professional training to justify keeping off its ski slopes instructors from other EU countries whom it considers to be unqualified, ostensibly on safety grounds. Basi's chief executive, Bill Kinnaird, insists that linking safety with a slalom test is "absolute nonsense"; nevertheless, the requirement that British instructors achieve equivalence before they can teach in France has become part of French law.

It was when some local prefets sought to apply the law to ski guides, again on safety grounds, that British tour operators really took exception. They used British guides to show clients around the pisted areas of resorts, without giving instruction. Gareth Crump, product development manager of Thomson, says: "We had difficulty in understanding the French concern for safety when our clients - with whom guiding was very popular - were doing nothing with the guides that they could not do on their own." Some operators argued that this was not technically "guiding", since the guides sometimes skied behind the clients; but such semantics became irrelevant when, in 1996, France won EU backing for both the equivalence requirement and for its extension to guiding. French law now uses the phrase "animating a sporting activity" to cover anything a ski guide might do.

BASI is still contesting France's right to demand equivalence, and earlier this week a meeting took place between representatives of the British and French governments, from which a report will go to the European Commission on the issue.

But, for the time being, the only way British instructors can teach or guide in French resorts is by achieving equivalence. Some have done so, and British ski schools have been established in French resorts, notably the British Alpine Ski School (Bass) at Avoriaz, in the Portes du Soleil ski area. Ian McKellar set up Bass five years ago. It now employs four instructors. "I'm desperate to get more, but there are so few qualified British instructors that this season I will probably have to hire some from Switzerland," McKellar says.

He recalls that it took Bass three years to get properly established: it was a struggle to get official registration for instructors, to obtain passes from the lift company, and to establish the right to use the ski- school priority channel at lift queues. He is reluctant to discuss the opposition he met from local instructors, but admits that there was verbal abuse "and the odd push and shove".

Nick Morgan is optimistic that Le Ski School won't attract local resistance. "We've been in Courchevel 1650 for 15 years, we've got 10 chalets in the resort, and we have integrated with the community - my sister's children go to school in Courchevel during the winter months. I don't think there will be animosity towards us: it might be different if Thomson or Airtours were starting a ski school. At least with us everyone knows who to talk to if they have a problem. And our instructors all have equivalence, so legally we've got as much right to run a school as the Ecole de Ski Francais."

He expects the school to be a profitable venture, "eventually". "There are a lot of start-up costs - for example, it costs about pounds 1,000 to register the Le Ski School trademark, and that's a lot of ski lessons at pounds 75 per week."

The instructors will ski all over the Trois Vallees, carrying the name of Le Ski School on their uniforms; and Morgan hopes that clients who have travelled to the area with other companies will be attracted to it. "There may be people on holiday with the big operators who want to get good quality instruction from English speakers in the area. And why shouldn't they come to Le Ski School, if that can't be guaranteed at other ski schools?"

For more information, contact Le Ski on 01484 548996 and Bass on 01237 451099