After previously hosting thousands of Italian student groups through PON, language schools have welcomed the revival of the program.
However, the scheme has undergone a major overhaul this year. Funding, previously available to schools in four regions, has been rolled out nationwide, and Italian schools sending students overseas will for the first time have two years to spend money they are awarded.
“We think that some schools will still try to organise [study abroad] programs, but not like in the past”
There are also large tranches of funding going towards domestic education initiatives, so the number of students who will study overseas is as yet unconfirmed.
Secondary schools will be able to claim a maximum of €45,000 to send a group of up to 15 students to study overseas to complete a three-week European language course within the EU, through the new European Citizenship arm of the PON scheme.
A total of €80m has been allocated to the European Citizenship ‘action’ – one of ten that now make up PON – with some of that money going to finance language and citizenship courses within Italy.
“We think that some schools will still try to organise [study abroad] programs, but not like in the past,” Lorenzo Agati, president of the Italian Association of Language Consultants and Agents, told The PIE News.
“It’s not only language courses, but we see that some schools are also interested in work experience or internships, so it’s a bit different from what it used to be.”
Students participating in the study abroad component must have already reached level B1 in their chosen language.
They must then prove they have reached level B2 by the end of their placement at one of a handful of government-approved language centres.
The minimum proficiency requirements and the popularity of the language mean the majority of the study abroad funding is likely to finance trips to English-speaking destinations, according to Henry Tolley, head of business development at Trinity College London, one of the approved exam providers.
The announcement follows a year of confusion in which PON funding was expected but never released. This is despite plans to widen access to funding – which was only previously available to students in the regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia – initially announced in 2014.
“Quite a few centres were waiting for the scheme to open last year and it was very disappointing when it didn’t,” commented Sarah Cooper, chief executive of English UK.
PON provides an “excellent opportunity” for language schools that can accommodate groups beyond the summer months, she said. The return of the scheme, though structured differently, is welcome news to host schools for whom PON groups were previously an important source of revenue.
“In the years leading up to the temporary suspension of PON, Marketing English in Ireland schools welcomed thousands of PON students and we hope to resume those contacts now,” David O’Grady, the association’s CEO, told The PIE News.
“We are excited about this,” he added. “Some of our member schools hope to be able to welcome students as early as June 2017.”
“Quite a few centres were waiting for the scheme to open last year and it was very disappointing when it didn’t”
However, it may take time for schools to put together projects and identify courses that enable students to progress to the required level of language proficiency. “I don’t see the possibility of running any of these programs for the summer; maybe September, October,” cautioned Agati.
The announcement has also been met with a degree of scepticism from some schools that hosted PON groups in previous years, as the scheme has historically been marred by problems including late payments and over-promising by some agents selling courses.
“If the funding is indeed coming through then it will be good news. However, I have grown increasingly sceptical,” said Jimmy Hordon, director of Target English International in Hull, though he confirmed the school does plan to take students if funding is realised.
Andrew Hjort, principal of Melton College in York, similarly noted that schools have run into problems with managing expectations. In the past, some groups have made demands that have been difficult for language schools to fulfil, or chosen to spend a large portion of their budget on hotel accommodation, leaving less for teaching or extra students.
“[PON] is a tremendous idea, it does an awful lot of good. So it’s good news,” he said.
“What would be really good news is if from the outset the government said: ‘This is the amount of money and this is what you are allowed to spend it on’.”
He predicted that “honeypot destinations” such as London and Dublin will be the first to receive enquiries. “We will not get requests as quickly as the London schools, I can almost guarantee that.”
Italian schools must submit their proposals for European Citizenship programs to the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research by May 26.
“We’d encourage centres to start taking action on this now if they’re keen to take part,” advised Tolley, who said Trinity will be working with centres in the UK, Ireland and Malta to provide exams for PON participants.
“One reason to get involved early is that participating high schools must specify where they want their pupils to study when they register for the scheme, and this cannot be changed.”
I totally agree with Andrew Hjort because the Italian Government should impose on Italian schools how the money is spent. The idea of the programme is first and foremost educational and Italian schools should not be allowed to ask to stay in 4 Star Hotels. In my opinion PON students should be hosted in host families which are an excellent way to merge into the local Culture. This is much more beneficial for students than staying in a hotel.