We don't have a monopoly on English

Fierce competition in the English language teaching market has forced Britain to improve its facilities
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Not so long ago teaching English to foreign students was just another way of helping to finance that world trip, along with washing up in restaurants or driving cars across America. But these backpackers' English lessons were largely incompetent and usually a complete rip-off for the unfortunate student.

Today the English Language Teaching (ELT) industry presents a very different face. To compete, schools have had to be come far more professional. In Britain, the market is worth pounds 700m a year, making it the country's fifth-largest invisible earnings sector. Every year, some 616,000 students visit to learn the world's first language. They stay an average of four weeks and spend around pounds 250 a week.

The potential market is even greater: one-fifth of the world's population speaks English to some level of competence, and demand from the rest is increasing. Some 90 per cent of the world's electronically stored information is in English and most of the estimated 50 million Internet users communicate through it.

ELT expertise resided, until recently, solely in Britain, but the country has failed to capitalise on its headstart. Although VAT on English language tuition was abolished in 1994 enabling Britain to compete more effectively with other ELT destinations, the Government still refuses to regulate the sector.

Australia and the US, meanwhile, have surged ahead. Britain's industry is, according to the British Council, "losing vitality in its methods and materials, and is held back by lack of co-ordination as compared with the English language promotion activity of other nations".

Quite simply, Britain's marketing arm in ELT has been dreadful. It has been hampered by fragmentation and academic anachronisms. No less than three different bodies have been responsible for quality control: the British Council, the Association of Recognised English Language Services (Arels) for private schools and the British Association of State English Language Teaching (Baselt) for state colleges.

The result has been the scrapping of the different public and private schemes in favour of the unified "English in Britain: Accreditation Scheme", so that every competent educational institution offering English lessons will be regulated in the same way. It is also hoped the changes will enable Britain to promote itself better by marketing the expertise it has to offer in a more sophisticated manner.

Students, too, have been instrumental in fostering a greater professionalism. These days languages are taught so much better in European high schools that today's learners have high expectations. The old chalk-and-talk methods employed in summer schools will be laughed out of the classroom by high-tech students of the Nineties. They want the best in course material, teachers, technology, accommodation and welfare, as well as excursions.

Any school that stints on resources is unlikely to survive the competition. Niche marketing has become essential. Instead of trying to draw in all and sundry, schools are honing their image to appeal to particular sectors. English can be taken with a specialist slant in say, banking, aviation, computing, engineering, law, medicine or science. Hobbies are catered for in the shape of music, art, theatre, pony-trekking, walking, gastronomy, computers.

There is a current boom, for example, in "full immersion" English or homestay in which the student stays with a teacher for the duration of the course. Bespoke English comes at a price, but student needs - in terms of activities and food as well as education - are paramount. This method provides a more caring environment.

"Students get one-to-one tuition and converse only in the host language at all other times," says Barry Haywood of the Eurolingua Institute. "It also means that teachers have time to deal with the particular language difficulties of the students."

Indeed, good accommodation is right at the top of the list of priorities just as important as good teaching for visiting students, according to a 1994 British Tourist Authority survey. The findings, combined with a long list of complaints from dissatisfied students, spurred Arels to bring in a homestay code of practice for its 200 registered schools. Any host family on a school's books must provide the student with a healthy diet, a comfortable room with work facilities, a caring and hospitable atmosphere, and the chance to practise English.

Educational research has shown that learning is enhanced by a lively programme of activities. Many schools are linking up with tourist bodies to provide challenging task-related visits to a local castle or museum. Students are likely to be seen clutching worksheets as they negotiate the ramparts of a Norman keep.

Nor has the teaching of teachers escaped the sweeping broom of efficiency. Arels has got its act together on rooting out fly-by-night cowboys who guarantee to turn anyone into an English teacher in a weekend.

But the body that safeguards standards in the private sector is urging its top-bracket schools to only accept teachers with one of two Teaching of English as a Foreign Language qualifications: the Royal Society of Arts or the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages certificates. "Some outfits promise to turn you into a teacher without even providing the opportunity for any supervised teaching in the classroom," says Helen Mattacott, education officer at Arels.