Large School Chains in Greece
The world moves on and the situation of many foreign language centres in Greece (as well as in many other countries) has changed dramatically.
In the last couple of decades or so, a new generation of foreign language school owners has emerged in Greece, and I suspect the same has happened in other countries as well.
This new breed of education managers has either started an independent foreign language centre as a business venture, or, more often, they have bought the rights to a franchise, such as some which I will be describing in the remainder of this post.
Such franchises include Linguaphone in Greece, owned in part by the late mega publisher Mr.Christos Lambrakis through one of his subsidiary companies , Interlingua, owned by businessman Mr.Prokopis Foussas, and EUROGNOSI, established by marketeer Mr Ioannis Iliadis (former employee or Mr Foussas) who sold the Eurognosi franchise a few years ago and is now active in real estate.
These men created small empires, which have had their ups and downs of course, like any other business. Interlingua, for example, lost a lot of its original branches, the owners of which formed the new AXON franchise. The granddaddy of them all in Greece is the Stratigakis franchise, now called ISON, founded in 1978 by Mr.Stratigakis, a pioneer in the franchising of foreign language centres in Greece.
Who are the Education Leaders of these Foreign Language Centres?
Many of the franchisees in the newer outfits are business people, ranging from small investors with jobs in the state sector, e.g. banks, or small businesses, from shop owners (grocers, butchers, retailers with a small capital to invest) to large investors, such as Mr.Lambrakis.
They have no background in education studies or foreign language teaching and in some cases which I am personally familiar with, their general education level is at secondary school level or even below that.
Mr Stratigakis is perhaps one of the few who cannot be included in this category of education leaders since he happened to be a teacher of English himself.
These managers have a rather industrial and ‘product-oriented’ attitude which implies protecting their ‘secret formula’ in very much the same way that an ice cream factory will guard its secret recipes: zealously and passionately.
Smaller Foreign Language Centres and their leadership
By contrast, there are still many smaller or larger foreign language centres started by a teacher-owner who works as a DOS but who also, more often than not, is fully involved in the teaching programme.
By a legal peculiarity which maddens many EU and non-EU teachers, in Greece it has been possible to become an English Language Teacher or Foreign Language Centre owner by merely obtaining a recognized Procifiency Certificate such as the Cambridge CPE or the Michigan Proficiency Certificate.
(This is still true, unfortunately. It is still possible to obtain a teaching license on the basis of one of these certificates. No knowledge of pedagogy is required or any evidence of EFL/ESL training)
Despite the fact that there are still many foreign language school owners whose qualifications (both in terms of Language as well as Methodology) are/were of the type described above, it could be argued that at least they are involved in the process of foreign language education.
Are they educators or not? Well, there are people who would disagree with me, but I believe that although they may have no TEFL training or background in pedagogy, they are educators by dint of exposure and experience in their classrooms. They may not have the theoretical or practical/technial knowledge or professional expertise expected, say, of a DELTA qualified teacher, but contact with students and materials as well as exposure to the many free educational seminars organised by publishers, will hopefully have given them some ideas of sound educational practices.
But this is food for thought for an altogether different post – in this one I would like to look at some of the issues arising from the conceptualization of franchising in the local milieu and the consensus of education leaders who have no background in education.
Issues arising from having Education Leaders who are not Educators
Here are some of the issues as I see them
- The choice of materials, course book, supplementary and support materials does not always have a sound educational basis but has very high ‘impressing the client’ value.
- There is a desire to have uniformity in everything – from furniture to course books to the exact unit of the course book that all the branches should be at a particular point of time – which kills individualization and fitting in with the learners’ needs.
- ISO quality assurance certificates are advertised and much sought after. These usually do not generate better quality teaching, although they tend to generate a huge amount of paperwork!
- Although it is within the promises and assurances of their contracts to new or prospective franchisees, the teacher training and development which takes place is often either minimal or paid for by a publisher wishing to promote their wares.
So does this translate into low quality Foreign Language Teaching?
Being a member of a franchise does not, of course, mean that there will be no quality teaching or quality programmes offered. It does, however, allow entry of a high number of individuals who have little or nothing to do with education and whose main concern is sales and high profits.
Is this benefitting students?
It is very hard to make a judgement of this type on a blog post such as this without hard evidence.
Certainly, franchise requirements for better premises and class spaces must be seen in a positive light. I have visited numerous classrooms in my capacity as an assessor for the various Diplomas and Certificates offered by my centre, and there have been many occasions when I felt that the classroom conditions were dire – from all points of view (dilapidated seating, peeling walls, damp, cold, rank, windowless, scratchy chalkboards, no visible visual support anywhere…).
Quality of teaching, however, does not follow suit to having excellent premises, in the same way that the lessons taught by passionate teachers in training in the dinghy classrooms described above were often outstanding!
The smaller groups – a marketeering gimmick which was started by Mr Iliades – are seen by some clients and parents to allow for more personal attention by the teacher and more talking time per student. In fact, unless your teacher is very well trained and well versed in collaborative learning techniques and uses learner-centred activities, there is no guarantee of more talk – one untrained teacher can talk their head off equally well with 8 or 10 or 40 students…
Is this benefitting teachers?
Despite the fact that there are more administrative demands on teachers, systems like these do not in fact pay teachers better.
In Greece, the teachers are- similarly with many other local foreign language centres – fired in June and go on unemployment benefit for the whole summer because the school cannot keep them employed as there are no classes offered during the summer! More than 30,000 teachers are paid unemployment benefit for four months in the summer and in September they are hired once more.
I shouldn’t have to spell out to you who subsidizes this huge teaching population which survives on 400 euros or so per month, a sum which I am certain the foreign language owner does not have to live on.
So what’s the verdict?
In the hard times in which this article is being written, there should be no doubt that having an entrepreneurial spirit and business skills is a necessary part of what education managers must have. However, it should also be equally obvious that education management is not supermarket management and quality standards are not just limited to the assembly line and attractive packaging.
My own feeling is that there is a strong need for more well educated education managers who have an understanding both of management issues as well as best practices in foreign language teaching.
Very few do follow this path but having recourse to the marketing abilities of the larger corporate presence, they have completely obliterated a number of passionate and dedicated owners who were simply unable to compete with this large scale advertising and quite simply had to close down.
But by now, there is a very large number of well trained and highly dedicated teachers who have followed CELTA and DELTA courses and would be entirely capable of taking on more responsible roles in the context of these larger organisations and it is a pity that this great population of teachers is not given the opportunity to put into practice what they have learnt for the benefit of other teachers and to promote true education reform and not just its cosmetic side.
What do you think about this?
Are you a teacher or a school owner?
Do you think my comments are harsh on large school chains?
Is the picture I have painted a rather grim one? Is the reality better or worse?
Do the same things happen in other countries?
I really look forward to your comments.