Uncategorized

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.

Some of the outfits do offer continuous professional development through seminars and workshops – EUROGNOSI, for example, AXON and the Scholars Group, have or had their own in-house teacher trainers whose job was to run in-service courses and workshops at the start of the school year as well as structured observations and feedback to the teachers.

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.

Categories: Uncategorized

18 replies »

  1. Thank you for this post, Marisa 🙂
    Unfortunately, the picture you have painted is not grim enough!!!

    Both as a language school teacher – at first – and a small language school co-owner – later – I have to say that many large school chains do stifle creativity and enthusiasm in a teacher and make it almost impossible for small businesses to survive.

    That said, let us not forget that there are always exceptions to this rule, but so few that they tend to confirm it. Let me also add that this is by no means an attempt to absolve individual teachers or small schools of any responsibility for their own future.

    We should all strive to do our best for our own professional development and we should not be daunted by adverse circumstances nor find any excuse in them. Nevertheless, it is a pity that education leaders do so much for their financial well-being and so little for education itself.

    I ‘d love to read what people think about this,

    Alexandra

    • Dear Alexandra,

      I live for the exception to the rule, and for those dedicated to fighting the good fight!

      I live for the maverick teacher or director of studies who is not daunted by this. After all,, I am one myself, aren’t I?

      Thanks for posting your comment and yes, I agree with you, there is no reason to absolve anyone.

      Marisa

  2. Thank you for this post, Marisa!
    As Alexandra says, unfortunately your picture of the present state of language schools is not grim enough…
    I have recently experienced teaching in both a small private language school and one belonging to a franchisee of one of the chains you mentioned and believe me the picture is really worse…
    Yes, the school owners are business people who think of profit only in monetary terms and as I read in some leaflets handed out to prospective franchisees in an exhibition “investing on a foreign language school is easy, as you don’t need to think of stock material, and prestigious”. Well, why should I not invest on a business as such instead of a fast-food restaurant or a mini-market for which I need double capital let alone… prestige!!!
    I look forward to more comments!
    Ansa

    • Oh, Ansa,

      No need to remind me where you have been working 🙂 I was hoping the situation might have been better but, alas! I do look forward to further comments, but I fear few teachers will venture forward and, well, the type of manager I am describing wouldn’t be reading blogs such as this, would they now….

      Thank you for continuing this discussion.

      Marisa

      • Unfortunately the truth is that most F.L.C DOS are not familiar with methodology, child psychology, are not qualified but still run a Language School. Since the law allows them to own one teacher development and DOS development is optional…
        Being myself an EFL and Italian Lang. teacher(I have studied Foreign languages and literature in Italy) I soon realized that training was a must and of course Marisa became my tutor and ‘illuminated ‘ me.(Thanks Marisa !)
        I worked in a “good” language school where the DOS or Principal as she called herself didn’t know what TEFL stood for when reading my CV .The school’s policy was this: keep parents and students happy, alter the test scores if less than 60% .We were not allowed to teach grammar because SS would learn the language by trial and error. I was full of creativity and ideas after my TEFL course but there wasn’t place for creativity and imagination.
        It was then that I decided to start my own School and do things properly. We teach language through Shakespeare, we use realia, peer observations are obligatory twice a month, teacher’s meetings once a month, a school newspaper is written entirely by SS,SS are also involved in charity activities…..
        Would I be doing all this if I hadn’t taken the development course, if I still worked for that “good” school? I don’t think so!

  3. Grear post, but i’m still wondering if it’s too late to discuss something like that. Maybe we are the ones left to still worry about the future of job.Well, I wouldn’t even dare to describe teaching as a job, it’s something greater that no manager or school owner who cares only for money will ever realize. I feel threatened by these chains, they offer so much that we (teachers aabove all & then school owners ) can offer. And we should bear in mind the whole economic situation which makes parents search for the “cheap” school. I try hard ,every day, to convince parents & children ( for the big chains”clients”!) that their education has nothing to do with the luxurious schools, hi;tech equipment, free lessons…alla these should be provided with Love, Care ….
    I feel that we should first feel sure for ourselves and what we provide as teachers and then we can face this problem, which is unfortunately “sponsored” by the Greek ministry of education. Pessimistic? probably, yes but ready to fight! always.
    Thank you very much,
    Nora Touparlaki

    • Hi Nora and thanks for popping by this blog 🙂

      No, I don’t think it’s too late to do anything.

      Like you, I am up for fighting the good fight and things can always turn around.

      But it requires a concentrated effort and a community spirit. Is that possible? I think so. Who can help? We can. By training our learners to collaborate, by building their sense of community spirit and the power of the team, we can make a difference.

      Marisa

  4. I have two things to add about chain schools which might surprise readers who don’t know much about them.
    Many owners ‘rent a DoS’. They pay a certified teacher to sign as a DoS when in fact this person does not even work there, leaving the owners to handle all the academic aspects.

    Teachers must sign a contract that states among others that they are not allowed (after quitting or being fired) to work at another school within a radius of 2km for the following year. This means unemployment for teachers in small cities or islands.

    I would like to believe that this is not the case for all chain schools. I’m sure there are more teachers out there who are not in it just for the money.

    • Smaragda, the clause whereby teachers are not allowed to work within the 2km radius is also used by small language schools and I believe that, from a legal standpoint, it means absolutely nothing.

      I may be wrong but I have never actually heard of a case like this going to court. It would be interesting to find out now that the channels of communication have opened up!

      Why not check with a teachers’ association or a lawyer – I am sure that putting a teacher out of work with this territorial terrorism is not actually legal but it does need to be checked.

      As for the rent-a-DOS scam, well, what can I say… I think it is a dire practice but there are two guilty parties actually involved here, you know.

      Thanks for your continuing the discussion, Smaragda.

      Marisa

  5. Well, let me tell you my experience from owning a branch of one of the chains mentioned in your article and my experience now that I own my personal language school.

    First of all, let me start by saying that I am an English (and French) teacher. I have finished the Department of French Litterature in the University of Athens and I have also obtained the Cambridge Proficiency. I consider myself to be an English teacher, although I don’t seem to have all the right qualifications (!), however, this is the language I absolutely adore and have been teaching (successfully if I may add without sounding too conceited) for the last 11 years. I love French but I don’t consider myself either willing or qualified to teach it at high levels.

    Anyway, nine years ago, some colleagues told me about their plans to join a franchise (all three of us were language teachers). I thought it was a good idea since we would have the support -and the brandname- of a successful chain (at least it was successful back then) and also because the costs would be split. We found a “real bargain” and we went for it! The number of students we had the first year was amazing (180 students, can you imagine?). It was the name that had attracted all these students and of course the advertising! To make a long story short, it’s all about money, guys! The expenses were so high that we couldn’t always cope, we couldn’t even choose which books to use and in general, since you are a member of a (business) chain, you can’t easily be a teacher, not to mention an Educator… Anyway, we also had our own personal disputes so I soon quit the business! I stayed an active member (and by active I mean being present, teaching, dealing with parents, students and with any other problems that could arise) for a year or so. In total, I stayed in the chain for 3 school years and the only thing that I found really useful were the business seminars I attended and some Marketing strategies. I also have to mention that the image that these chains want to project is fake in most cases… There isn’t real supervision on educational issues, you’re only (closely) watched regarding financial matters.

    I have been running my own language school for five years now and I can say that I am a happy person! I don’t have many students yet (55 in total) but at least I know that thanks to my staff and me, children are learning something. We’re not a big impersonal school, I know all the students and their parents personally and I try to do my best to educate my students, not only to teach them foreign languages (or grammar, or vocabulary, or exam techiques). I’m happy and proud that five years now students have been coming to my school because their friends recommend it and not because they saw an impessive commercial on TV, because I get on well with my staff, who have actually become my friends, because I don’t have to lie to people by saying that they should pay a huge amount of money every month to get the education they deserve!

    I hopr I didn’t tire you much… Thank you for your time.

  6. Hi Marisa and all.

    Unfortunately, the same happens in Brazil: franchisees don’t have to speak English, provided that they have someone in their staff who will take responsibility for the pedagogical matters. A lot of people managing a franchise school don’t have anything to do with education, if they have a degree. A lot of teachers are paid very poor money and are not required to have any certificates or diplomas in the area (education, TESOL, linguistics, etc). Sometimes, a person is hired as a teacher just because he/she has been to an English-speaking country and can speak the language (sometimes not even at a C1 level). In-service training is provided often to those who sell or manage and sometimes to teachers, but then usually about the course book the school has developed or chosen. I would think most of the English language teaching here happens in two ways: franchise schools and private teachers (or very small schools started by these teachers). In the first case, the business seems to be more relevant than the learning/teaching taking place.

  7. Let’s talk about reality….I can only comment on some practices in Greece that I have experienced. For example,as Marissa pointed out , one can open a school here with just a proficiency qualification – I was teaching a private student for his proficiency exam and in the meantime he was a school owner! How can this happen? He had a busy school with students for proficiency without even passing the exam himself!

    Also, I d like to mention – business strategies. Free Interactive white boards are offered by a Greek Publisher to schools if their books are used by students.This means as a teacher, we have interactive boards but the course books are so bad that the ss are not given the chance to use the new language productively, thus I supplemented my lessons and now we are behind with the book, which I I have been told I must finish, so myself and the ss will have to do extra lessons on a Sunday ( without pay may I add)..so free boards were a temptation for my school owners but at what cost???
    Also, most owners have never been observed teaching, The bad habits and attitudes passed on by their teachers continues..but they would rather spend 200 euros on throwing a Christmas party for local PR than paying an experienced teacher trainer to come and advise them on their teaching techniques.
    Need I say more..who is at fault..the business orientated school owner or the State for allowing such practices to thrive?

  8. Thank you for posting this topic and for everyone’s comments. I have a lot to say about it, but I’ll try and keep it short!

    Personally, I get really frustrated and disappointed when I see great teachers who could probably run a great school but can’t, due to reasons such as lack of money or time or lack of licensing (for foreign teachers who haven’t passed Greek exams). And it then frustrates me that there are people who think “I have some money to invest/I’m good at business/I’ve got nothing better to do and I know English – why not start a ‘shop’ ‘selling’ English?”

    I once went to work at one of these chain schools which advertises itself and teaching methods as innovative, fun, lots of technology etc. On the first day, I got asked if I could teach grammar, to which I replied I could, and started outlining the approaches and methods I used. I was abruptly cut off with “no, you can’t teach grammar, you don’t speak Greek. You have to be able to translate to teach grammar…”
    I then brought up the topic of professional development and seminars, to which the boss replied “I know everything, I don’t need to bother with seminars anymore.” This, despite the boss having only a few years experience, no pedagogical training, and from that point on, constantly asking me grammar questions, what things meant, why was this the correct answer and not this… (asking me, the person who is not allowed to teach grammar!).

    Lastly, another reason I decided to try this school for a year was so I could learn some new teaching methods and try using some new activities and technology in the classroom (as they regularly advertise). This was not to be the case! I asked the boss on the first day for some guidelines on how I should go about teaching the lessons. The course book was opened to the first unit, a reading lesson, and I was instructed to ‘start at the top. Read the questions and get them to discuss them. Then have them do the reading, underlining their answers. Check the answers. Then get them to do the exercise below…’ etc. No other resources or technology were mentioned. No ‘special methodology’ was mentioned. At that point I realized I wasn’t going to learn anything from this school or boss, so I just decided to do my own thing, teach my own way and experiment with new approaches on my own and come online for professional development.

    It kills me to see these business owners ‘selling English’ and making a fortune (and some of them bragging about how much money they’re making and how many students they’ve got), while us hard-working, dedicated teachers are struggling to get by on our 8 months of salary a year, not to mention the pay we often lose for lost hours which are never made up. I can only hope and wait for reform within this sector, tightening up regulations for school owners and the handing out of teaching licenses.

    Karen

    • As a yank, I’m well accustomed to the profit motive. For many private schools in the US that means survival.
      Travelling abroad, I’m amazed at how much money a hard-pressed working family will invest in their kids’ future, ie, English lessons. It’s tough to get ahead as a private school teacher.
      Teachers are expected to be kind, forgiving, and saintly. Nature of the job. I’m constantly looking for extra work.

  9. Thank you for this post. I’m doing an MA in ELT and I have a module about Management in EL istitutions. This post along with my working experience and my reading for the module helped my define my context and talk about some Greek Case studies with my colleagues. Thanks again!
    George

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