How the cowboys made the most of the stampede to learn English

EFL is a growth industry, and many outfits are exchanging useless bits of paper for money.
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The Independent Online
Mainstream teachers have always been a bit snooty about English as a foreign language. For years, its lack of regulation has let un-scrupulous operators get rich quick on the back of a worldwide desire to learn English.

But there are signs that the EFL industry - Britain's eighth-largest source of invisible earnings, ahead of films, television and advertising - is getting serious. Heartily fed up with "cowboy" outfits making spurious claims to competence, a consortium of experts in the profession has launched a campaign to improve teaching standards.

Their target is companies that offer "dubious" training courses to would- be EFL teachers. They aim to impress on anyone looking at such companies - there are thought to be about 30 in Britain - to do extensive research before enrolling. The campaign falls under the banner of the Association of Recognised English Language Services (Arels), a membership of 198 top- bracket training schools.

The two initial training courses the industry regards as good are the Cambridge RSA Certificate in TEFLA (Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults) offered by 54 training establishments, and the Certificate TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), run under the auspices of Trinity College, London and offered by 40 trainers. Universities and colleges also offer Tefl courses,but, to their disadvantage, almost always without teaching practice.

The educational and regional press nevertheless regularly carry advertisements from other trainers whose courses are either "validated", "accredited", "internationally recognised" or "British Embassy approved". The campaign aims to publish disclaimers in the educational press.

"All of this is laughable to those on the inside of the profession but to the novice, it can sound official," says Helen Mattacott, education officer at Arels. "A course needs to be externally validated by a recognised examining body in orderfor it to be acceptable. There are those who have parted with the best part of pounds 1,000 only to find that their qualification is worthless."

All of EFL's controlling bodies are receiving a growing number of calls from people distressed to find that their certificate or diploma is not worth the paper it is written on. "It all started getting out of hand at the end of 1994," said one campaigner. "Once students have been through the course, there is nothing we can do, but we can warn people off the courses before they enrol."

Tony Duff, director of International House, the highly regarded provider of both EFL and TEFL courses in London said: "The situation is chaotic; no one outside the profession knows what's happening. We need to get our act in order. Meanwhile, I would advise anyone to steer clear of disreputable companies. How on earth can you learn to teach - without teaching practice - in a weekend? "

Companies are targeting three types of student. Some seek to capture graduates through student magazines, on student radio and through flyers in careers offices. Others are aiming for people - mainly - wanting a career change. Then there is the ex-pat market, which falls into two types: those already teaching English abroad but who feel the need for a qualification; and the partners of those living abroad who have time on their hands to do a "little English teaching".

To sort out the wheat from the chaff, there are three basic criteria to consider, according to the campaigners. First, any course should be properly validated by an examining body external to the course organisers; second, it should last longer than 100 hours and, third, it should contain a substantial element of integrated and supervised teaching practice.

These stipulations see off most of the companies offering distance learning and weekend courses. Few of their courses are externally validated, few last 100 hours and only one or two offer teaching practice - often only as an optional extra.

But does it all really matter? Aren't the quality demands of the campaigners - who amount, in effect, to the EFL elite - asking for rather a lot? A full-time RSA or Trinity course is expensive - more than pounds 1,000 for a four-week residential course - and most people starting out cannot afford it. Other courses are cheaper and can be done by distance learning or at the weekend.

The worldwide demand to learn English is insatiable and, following political developments in the former Eastern bloc and China - in addition to the established markets in Europe and South America - the numbers have never been greater. Every year, some 550,000 students come to Britain alone, spending pounds 570m. Much of the economy of southern seaside resorts depends on this seasonal influx. The rewards to be had are enormous.

Given this educational overload, isn't any qualification for teachers better than none at all? Besides, as any young EFL teacher will tell you, the job is invariably just a passport to earn some money while seeing the world and most people are unlikely to spend their lives doing it. When the industry offers no career progression and terrible wages, you can't really blame them.

Ms Mettacott accepts that some unrecognised courses might provide an adequate introduction to TEFL. The point of the campaign, however, was to "alert students to the dangers of signing up for a cowboy outfit, thereby ending up with a useless qualification". In addition, she says, the profession "must do what it can to maintain standards".

'It was an excellent introduction to teaching'

Toby Woolrych enrolled for a pounds 160 intensive practical weekend TEFL course in Bournemouth, his home town. He signed up with a company called Kristall, which provides educational training throughout the country. "This proved to be an excellent introduction to teaching English," said Mr Woolrych, 59. "Since I had no experience of EFL, I did not want to spend more than pounds 1,000 on a full-time course."

Mr Woolrych, formerly an instructor in the Army, said the 24-hour course provided useful tips for the classroom and ways of motivating students. He, along with the seven others on the course, was shown a video that demonstrated what it was like to learn a foreign language from scratch. "It was pointed out that this was merely a gentle introduction to teaching. At no point did Kristall claim this was a recognised, bona fide teaching certificate on a par with the RSA or Trinity TESOL. There was no question of me being misled by any extravagant claims," says Mr Woolrych.

He now has an assistant teacher's job at a Bournemouth EFL school and in the autumn will study full time for the RSA certificate.

'I thought this was the one, it sounded

so official'

Teresa Glynn 28, from Petts Wood in Kent, taught English at a private language school in Madrid but wanted a qualification. She saw an ILC (International Learning Centres) advertisement for a TEFL distance learning course in a British newspaper. The advert said ILC in Edinburgh was "British Council accredited".

"I had heard people say how important it was to have a TFL qualification and I thought this was the one, it sounded so official," says Ms Glynn.

She paid pounds 230 up front and waited. A book on TEFL arrived by post, along with a tape that was "almost inaudible and consisted of someone reading extracts from the book". Course instructions told her to read a chapter of the book and to write her first assignment, which would be assessed and returned. She sent the work off but never heard back from ILC.

On her return to the UK, she rang ILC and left eight messages on the answer phone saying she was unhappy with the course and wanted a refund; she never received a reply. "In the end, I contacted Watchdog, the BBC consumer programme, who were interested in investigating ILC," says Ms Glynn. "When I wrote to ILC mentioning the BBC's interest they telephoned me straight away. I then received the full refund. Obviously, ILC was very worried about being investigated. "

Since following a "rigorous" Trinity College TESOL course, Ms Glynn now realises how "amateur" the ILC course was: "In retrospect, it was deplorable."

ILC's director, Ian Dick, says: "ILC courses are indeed accredited and we don't state that they are accredited by anyone other than our own board." He says cassette tapes can occasionally be faulty but denied the tape was "someone reading extracts from a textbook".

"They are well-designed instructions on how to proceed with items in the course and in an organised manner. ILC conditions of registration state clearly that all requests to withdraw must be made in writing. When she wrote we provided the refund in accordance with normal conditions of business.

"To state that we were "frightened" into responding with a refund when threatened with further action by Watchdog is quite incorrect."

DOs and DON'Ts before enrolling in a TEFL course

1. Ensure that the course has teaching practice component.

2. Check that the course lasts for 100 hours or more.

3. Be sure the course is validated by a recognised external body.

4. Ask to see materials before paying.

5. Ask established bodies such as Arels about the company.

6. Be wary of grandiose claims, such as "internationally recognised".

7. Be sceptical of personal recommendations - former students may know of nothing better.

8. Disbelieve job guarantees - employment is hard to get nowadays.

9. Be prepared to pay more for a good course.

10. Bide your time; don't rush into enrolling.

USEFUL CONTACTS

ARELS (Association of Recognised English Language Services), 2 Pontypool Place, Valentine Place, London SE1 8QF. Tel: 0171-242 3136; Fax: 0171-928 9378

IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language), 3 Kingsdown Chambers, Kingsdown Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 2DJ. Tel: 01227 276528; Fax: 01227 274414

The British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel: 0171-389 4931

International House, 106 Piccadilly, London W1V 9FL.

Tel: 0171-491 2598; Fax: 0171-409 0959

BBC English Magazine, PO Box 76, Bush House, The Strand, London WC2B 4PH. Tel: 0171-257 8110; Fax: 0171-257 8316

EL Gazette (monthly trade paper for the profession), 10 Wrights Lane, Kensington, London W8 6TA.

Tel: 0171-938 1818; Fax: 0171-937 7534

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