FS: I never dreamt I’d be in the English language industry. When I joined university I was asked to give a helping hand at the National Student Travel Services (NSTS). I wasn’t given any training but I went over and started talking with foreign students and found that I liked it. My colleagues thought I did a good job so they just pushed me forward to carry on doing the job until I was invited to go up to Italy to invite more students to come over to learn English.
At the time English teaching was more of a hobby than an actual industry with just one group here, one group there. But, in Italy I saw there was a potential to generate a real industry but knew that it had to become professional and not just continue as a student project mucking along during the summer. My directors told me to go along and do whatever I saw fit. I was just a junior at university but I took the challenge and from that day I never looked back.
“I founded FELTOM with 10 language school owners to give the growing industry a direction”
The PIE: When was this?
FS: English courses started at NSTS in 1963 and I came on in 1968 so I’m five years short of the industry.
The PIE: Fast forward 20 years, what were your motivations for founding the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisation Malta (FELTOM) in 1989?
FS: In the 1980s the industry started expanding. If you go to the UK to study you go to Torquay or Bournemouth or London but here it’s only Malta so the good student experiences get mashed up with the bad and unfortunately bad news makes greater noise than good. So I founded FELTOM with 10 language school owners to give the growing industry a direction and avoid a bad reputation for Malta as a study destination because NSTS would suffer because of that as well.
The PIE: What were the principal objectives?
FS: Together we worked out a code of conduct and best practices with the objective to give them to government to make into legislation. That took us six years. And now, with the EFL Monitoring Board we’re in the next phase of that.
The PIE: You were also an integral part of Malta’s national ELT legislation which was formed by the EFL Monitoring Board. Tell me more about that.
FS: The monitoring board started 16 years ago with the intention of monitoring English language centres. We were the first country to have a national legislation on ELT. That gave the board legal authority to license teachers, allow schools to open, to carry out inspections and to close schools if necessary.
“Five years ago we realised that we had maintained control of the market but we weren’t moving ahead”
Five years ago we realised that we had maintained control of the market but we weren’t moving ahead and we weren’t competitive internationally. So we decided to boost development but found the current legislation limiting.
We need to go further and we’re working together with the schools to show them how they should change. The new accreditation scheme will be a law soon. We are a bit delayed but you have to be patient.
The PIE: What are the challenges in moving forward with these endeavours? [more>>]
FS: Today English is taught everywhere around the world, however often it’s in a closed environment. If Malta doesn’t offer bilingualism in the street the value of coming to Malta is the same as going to a school in Spain or Italy. We are sensitising people in general to English. Our conference last month was to entice teachers to teach English as an important subject for the economy of Malta.
And with the accreditation scheme we’re going to look at so many facets of the operation. Schools will have to pull up their socks right across the board. We need to market Malta as a place where every language school holds a mark of trust.
The PIE: Where does Malta see itself in the international market?
“If Malta doesn’t offer bilingualism in the street the value of coming to Malta is the same as going to a school in Spain or Italy”
FS: We have 70,000 English language students per year which is about 6% of the UK’s numbers. We’re ahead of South Africa and New Zealand. That’s pretty good for an island with a population of 400,000. We’re moving in sync with other English speaking countries because we’re all looking to maintain standards. If I go back to the early 70’s when Malta was gaining momentum, yes Malta was a threat to the UK. I have faced school owners from there who asked me “Who do you think you are? You don’t know English? How do you expect to teach English?”. But today we work in cooperation with other countries. For example, we asked the British Council, English UK and NEAS to assist us in developing the accreditation scheme.
The PIE: How does Malta distinguish itself in the competitive EFL sector?
“We see our size as a positive. At once it’s small and you feel at home with the warmth and hospitality of the people”
FS: We see our size as a positive. At once it’s small and you feel at home with the warmth and hospitality of the people. We have high academic standards. We compare to the better schools and with the new accreditation the imbalance between the best and the worst schools will decrease. Our climate helps too.
The PIE: As a pioneer of the English language sector in Malta, where do you see it going in the future?
FS: I strongly believe that there is a future not just for language schools but also education in Malta. The country itself will move up from teaching English as a foreign language into other sectors of education which we know is about six times as large as teaching English or language teaching according to student market research. That means that the tourism product will be highly influenced by education.
But we have to give time for things to settle so we can’t talk too far into the future. We have to put one foot in front of the other. So marketing will be the first step. We will work to establish brand Malta as a mark of quality and trust. At the moment 90-95% of our students come from Europe and that has to be balanced out with people from other countries. Another move for Malta will be to find new markets in Asia and Latin America.