English UK parliamentary reception and annual conference- our blog
14 May 2014

It's the first morning of English UK's tenth anniversary annual conference, and it's a busy one. There are almost 150 people milling round in the grand surroundings of London's Hotel Russell (many of whom booked at the last minute, and a fair few by phone after the website had officially closed to business).

For quite a few members, the conference officially began last night, in the annual Parliamentary reception which attracted quite a few MPs and the odd Lord. Peter Bottomley was cracking jokes, and Andrew Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith, spent quite a while in animated conversation with a group of members.

"If things are going well nobody contacts me... but I have been in touch with what's happening," he said. "I've spoken to some members this evening, and you seem to have some happy members.  We went to a very dark place about two or three years ago - mainly in the private sector - and schools in my constituency, they really were struggling, and it was the fault of the government.

"I hope government learned a salutary lesson particularly on the issue of students. It's not just money they bring to the UK, but cultural experience. It's the thing that makes us a unique society, welcoming people for what they contribute."

Stephen Lloyd, the Eastbourne MP who sponsored the evening, was also positive as he addressed the reception. "It's a pleasure to sponsor this, a real pleasure. The whole sector has had quite a challenging time in the last few years but I think has come through very well, certainly in my constituency.... it is a hugely significant part of my local economy, it really is."

He recalled the time when "a number of parliamentarians with me in the room worked across party to get some real common sense with the home office around specific issue of English Language schools." Tony Millns and EnglishUK had been tremendously helpful, he said, and "actually got a result which was very significant for my own constituency and I know the sector across the whole country."

He said there was a recognition for any MP across all parties in the UK that if they had English Language schools in their constituency there was a significant bonus to the economy, not just to schools and staff but local families. 

Now, he said, the sector was "tremendously exciting." 

"Although it does have challenges... I  actually think you've come through - and I don't patronise on this as I think it is so important to my local constituency - you've come through stronger." He said issues of concern had been "sorted," and that English UK was focused, and had become stronger through the adversity of the past three years.

"I really do believe you have got a tremendous future whichever government wins next election." he concluded. Tony Millns, meanwhile, thanked parliamentarians in the room for their cross party support over English UK's history, revealing that David Willetts had sent apologies and that there had been a constructive conversation with Labour's Yvette Cooper recently.

MPs included Peter Bottomley, Mike Gapes, Paul Blomfield, Robert Syms, Lord Pendry, Michael Dugher, Andrew Slaughter, and Graham Brody.

Charlie Tweddle of EC Oxford, English UK's newest member, said it had been "a very worthwhile and interesting evening."

So what's happened this morning? We've had interesting sessions from Tony Millns, Peter Firth of the Future Laboratory and a panel session on English.

Tony, in his last conference as English UK's CEO, had the latest student weeks from figures to share and some thoughts on trends past and future.

He said membership grew slightly at around 2 per cent, with 478 centres in membership. It had been a good year for the association, with a financial surplus (here he paused to ask who'd read the accounts and knew what it was. Judy Loren of Excel correctly said it was £25,000, which Tony said would help further pay down the mortgage on St John Street and help top up the student support fund.)

There had been record attendance at the marketing and teachers' conference and training days in different locations, an improved website, with the start of international ventures and more. The partner agency scheme had also grown.

The UK market itself had endured a bad time for a couple of years, and there was "no real recovery" in 2013. Though student numbers had risen by 17 per cent in private sectors, student weeks had only risen by one per cent. Adults numbers in year-round centres had decline, but junior numbers risen by just over 10 per cent.

There was relatively good news in the state sector, with a 6.2 increase in the number of student weeks per centre. Juniors were now just over 23 per cent of total student weeks, and courses were shorter, more intensive. Mr Millns put this down to great cost and time pressures on students.

He said: "If English UK represents about 80 per cent of the sector… that suggests over 730,000 students to learn English in the UK, which is a higher figure than we're used to claiming." He noted market volatility, high in some areas.

Turning to politics, he said the net migration target had been the driver of "some extremely perverse policy decisions." He added: "I don't think any sane party leader will repeat a pledge they couldn't meet first time," going on to talk about the meeting with Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow home secretary.

He said other major and positive signs included support for the international education strategy, and said the association needed to make the most of "what is likely to be a closely fought general election in a lot of consitutencies. Members will be crucial pressing candidates to be supportive of international education and the English sector, and we'll be looking to brief you all this year."

Finally, he said that 10 years on and English UK's predecessor organisations were almost fortotten, with no critical mass or adequate resources. Now, with 478 members, it was big enough ot be taken seriously (500 would be nice) and "we are the only game in town."

Now, he was pressing for accreditation as a licence to operate, in order to protect students and the UK's reputation for quality.

He said the association better represented members' interests with more and increased marketing, cost benefits and more.

"I look back:  should we have been more ambitious? Don more, sooner, faster?" he asked, suggesting that international associate membership and a TNE strategy could have come earlier, as could individual professional memberhip.

"It's been a more interesting 15 years than I expected… but it's a good time to hand over. I don't want to outstay my welcome. I've done 10 years as chief executive and that's plenty. I urge you to get involved… even if that's going on the forum.

"Thank you for your support and farewell."


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