"If students are not happy with their accommodation, they tend not be happy overall. It's really important to get it right," says Dr Diane Phillips.
She will be explaining exactly how to do that at the English UK Student Experience Conference 2016 in Bournemouth at the end of November: and her message is for every language centre, no matter the quality of housing available.
"Even though the choice of accommodation you have may be fairly limited in quality, you can make it better by giving hosts encouragement and information. If they students are really happy with their homestay accommodation, they are generally happy overall," says Dr Phillips, whose long experience in UK English language teaching includes being an Accreditation UK inspector since 2000.
"You don't need to have superb, four or five star hotel accommodation because there are certain areas that anybody can do and do well. Most of it is about taking time to investigate, check on the homestay and act on feedback," she adds. What is most important Dr Diane Phillips says, is to: address problems promptly; focus on what you can control; recruit well and build loyalty; and do not neglect seemingly small, technical requirements to pass inspection.
"If something goes wrong but inspectors can see that the accommodation manager addressed the problem promptly and has good records and good customer service, then they would get a strength. Just don't ignore a problem and keep on sending students there because there's not much choice: that's something we could come down on like a tonne of bricks, if they know it isn't meeting criteria or isn't safe.
While centres have to be realistic - a few select homestays for an executive school and accommodation for 200 summer students are very different prospects – Dr Phillips says, is going to talk about how you can get strengths in inspection areas. "The important thing is to focus on areas where the school can have control, for example, checking hosts, how they inspect and reinspect them," she says.
Recruitment is fundamental and "a lot more professional than it used to be: it is like interviewing somebody for a job. It's a professional relationship. You've got to treat them like an employee: be fair, praise them, give feedback, just like a good employer-employees relationship." And it is important to build loyalty, she adds, which is harder to do if a school's accommodation manager has changed frequently.
Finally, Dr Phillips highlights the importance of avoiding "not met" judgments in certain areas, in particular care of the under-18s. "Centres can fail on things like fire risk assessments, not checking gas safety every year, not making sure all over-18s in the home are DBS checked - lots of technical things they have to meet in order to pass."
Dr Phillips' session on good accommodation is just one of several major sessions at the Student Experience conference, which will also focus on improving customer service, dealing with difficult people, visa problems and making safeguarding even better.
The conference is aimed at staff specialising in welfare, accommodation and other student contact roles, and is a follow-up to a very successful event in Sheffield in 2014, which delegates told us they found very useful.
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