Every weekend for the next three months, playtime will have to give way to intensive English study.

“The work environment is so competitive now, it is important that my child has every advantage possible,” explained one parent who has forked out several hundred dollars for what she believes is an essential part of her child’s education.

With an industry valued at $1.2 billion, China now boasts more English language students than America has native English speakers, as both children and adults strive to acquire the linguistic skills necessary for the international business world of which China is now a member.

In Beijing alone there are some 3000 registered language schools catering to all levels of the market, yet according to experts supply is still not matching demand.

The result is that although there are schools with respected credentials, a fair number are still languishing in what one manager called “the wild west era of teaching”.

“In theory there are only two properly licenced schools, ours and the diplomatic training college,” said Angela Zhao of government agency FESCO.

Forged credentials

Since opening in 1979 they have taught English to over 72,000 students. Since the process to obtain all the correct registration papers is impossibly laborious, most schools will simply find other ways of staying open.

"Working with foreigners, I have realised one has to be up front about everything. It is essential that you pay on time or they will not trust you"

Wang Yanming,
English school manager

The result she says is like “bamboo coming up after the rain” as schools open with no syllabus or administration skills, no trained teachers and sometimes forged credentials. 

“It did not matter that I had no experience,” explained Mike, an American who taught evening classes while studying Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University. “I looked the part, spoke fluent English and that was that.”

For $13 an hour, Mike used to host evening discussion groups with middle-aged Chinese.

“At one point the manager asked me if I knew another Mike from Ohio who studied with me. Turning around, I realised I did know the guy but he was actually Mikel from Siberia and his English was not so good,” he said.

'Big nose' cachet

According to Wang Yanming, a manager of a local school that specialises in training hotel staff to speak English, finding qualified or even just competent teachers is only part of the problem.

“Most training colleges will take advantage of a student's inability to recognise good native teachers but even if you do only hire capable teachers, the single biggest issue is foreign teacher management.”

“It is certainly a tool schools use,” concurred Zhao, “get some teachers with ‘a big nose’ and you will impress both the parents and the students.”

In an industry where demand still outstrips supply, foreign teachers have the luxury of choice. For many like Mike, teaching is only a part-time occupation and it is not uncommon to find people who have taught at several different schools within a short space of time.

“I tried five schools in three months, moving between those that pay the highest. I saw teaching as only a stepping stone towards a proper job.”

The only way to tie down a teacher according to Wang is through incentives and honesty, both on the side of the teacher and of the school.

“Working with foreigners, I have realised one has to be upfront about everything. It is essential that you pay on time or they will not trust you. Also, I would expect them to tell me at the outset if they can commit to the course and the longer they stay, the more they get paid.”

A good reputation

Realising that as the market develops so it is becoming more discerning, Wang is keen to maintain his reputation as a school that can deliver what it promises. “Our reputation is everything. That is how we get new contracts with hotels, if I lose it, I lose my business.”

SARS had an huge impact on poorly run schools

According to Andrew Frank of Oxford English, the dynamics of the industry are changing fast. “You can no longer just find some native speakers and open a school. People will look at what works for them, the market is much more educated in that way.”

Focusing on high-end business clients, their syllabus aims to offer flexibility and real-life experience by enacting boardroom meetings and negotiation sessions.

“Schools will have to focus on niche markets in the future, it will become only more competitive as clients will soon start demanding guaranteed results from the teaching,” he said.

Already, increased innovation and risk taking is noticeable within the industry. Li Yang, creator of Crazy English, has become a national icon through his open air classes in which the audience is encouraged to shout out words and useful phrases.

However, expectations for results also cause schools to cut corners.

“At the school I worked at, we used to help students prepare for entrance to American universities,” said Richard, a British teacher.

“The school was very clear that we ought to ‘help’ the students as much as possible with their application essays even if it meant writing them from scratch,” he added.

Education advisor Nicholas Burridge says that countries are legislating to ensure fair play. “In Australia now, any education agency bringing Chinese students into the country has to abide by regulations that govern among other aspects, assistance with university application work. To do otherwise risks loss of licence and subsequent business.”

In China, the government has also made steps to ensure a higher quality of English teaching education. In Shanghai, regulations were introduced that stated teachers required basic teaching qualifications. However, enforcement is another matter.

Pointing to the SARS induced industry shake-up when dozens of badly run schools closed due to lack of savings, Zhao at FESCO is adamant where the answer lies. “Laws and regulation rarely help as nobody takes notice of them. In the end, it will be the market that decides.”