Article Notes: Roads to quality street: perspectives on quality in ELT – George Pickering

‘Article Notes’ is a set of blog posts in which I write down my notes about articles that I read. These notes are not meant to be ‘academic’ or ‘formal’; rather, they are my ramblings and immediate thoughts in reaction to the content I read. I’ve written them up to help me remember the article, and to share my thoughts with those who are interested. I welcome you feedback and comments!

Summary and notes

Pickering’s article, in essence, looks at various models for measuring quality within organisations in general and within ELT. As usual, I’ll do my best to summarise the main points and share my thoughts.

“The key to success today is to provide high quality products and services at a reasonable cost”.

Pickering, 1999, p.5

The article starts by looking at reasons why people are/need to be worried about quality. Here are the sub-headings for this section (Pickering, 1999, p.5):

  1. Rising customer requirements
  2. Increasing competition
  3. The pursuit of excellence
  4. Keeping costs down

Basically, quality is important because at the end of the day a school/academy is an educational institution AND a business. Thinking back on my ‘teacher’ days (i.e., when I was only teaching, not managing or training), I ‘knew’ this but didn’t really understand what it meant. It wasn’t until I started working closely with my DoS a number of years ago that I really started to see the things that go on ‘behind the scenes’, and why it is necessary to view the institution as a business.

One of the first models he writes about is Total Quality Management (TQM), which defines quality as the following (Pickering, 1999):

  1. Quality is determined by the customer, not the supplier.
  2. The customer is anyone who receives the service, and the client can be internal or external (basically, internal refer to teachers who receive the learners after another teacher, and external are, well, the learners, parents, etc.).
  3. Quality is meeting standards and needs
  4. Quality is achieved by the prevention of work that does not meet standards; in effect, we are not trying to detect failure, rather avoid it by continually improving (the old adage, prevention is better than the cure comes to mind here).

In terms of trying to get to quality, Pickering (1999) adds that there are five ‘roads’ that can be taken:

  1. Self-assessment: Here, the institution creates a set of criteria (or gets them from somewhere) and carries out a self-assessment to ensure that they are meeting these.
  2. Inspection schemes: These are familiar to those who have worked in British Council schools. Basically, the institution has an external inspector come in an take a look at all the things they are doing. One of the major schemes is actually the EAQUALs inspection scheme, which is fairly comprehensive, from what I’ve read. Here is an example report that I found. I also found these excerpts from the EAQUALs self-assessment handbook really interesting – and helpful in seeing the areas we need to improve!
  3. ISO 9002: This comes from the ISO 9000 certification that was popular in the 90’s. Pickering (1999) writes that following this road, we create a manual that says what we do (all the processes, etc.), we do that, and then we prove that we do it (and we need to show proof). This, from my research, seems really messy and much more focused on companies with supply chains, etc., but there are some really useful ‘ideas’ to take away, especially from 9002 which is supposed to be a general series. For example, there are things called ‘clauses’ which focus on management practices or customer satisfaction. I did a little bit more digging and it seems that 9002 has been replaced by 9001:2015, which is basically the latest version of the same thing. It’s all very confusing at this stage, but it is something that I’d like to look at in more detail later.
  4. Benchmarking: This is where we analyse what our competitors are doing, and the management processes behind what they are doing – and we try to emulate them (if they are ‘better’ than us, that is). Pickering (1999, p.6) writes that benchmarking “is one of the most under-utilised quality tools in ELT”.
  5. Customer service: Here we are making sure that our customers are satisfied. He really emphasise that this means going the extra mile to provide quality service AND get feedback on this service. This means that the end-of-course questionnaire ain’t gonna cut it – you need more engagement with customers.

“Because they monitor the satisfaction of students through, for example, an evaluation questionnaire, often at the end of a course, they feel that little else needs to be done. This is as foolhardy as believing that just because you send flowers to your loved one on your anniversary, they require no further attention throughout the rest of the year!”

Pickering, 1999, p.7

Continuing with frameworks/models, Pickering introduces the EFQM framework, which focuses on nine elements:

  1. Customer satisfaction
  2. People (Staff) satisfaction
  3. Impact on Society
  4. Leadership
  5. Policy and Strategy
  6. People Management
  7. Resources
  8. Processes
  9. Business results

He presents his ‘revised’ EFQM framework for the ELT industry, in which we can see a few changes. One, we can see that leadership has an impact on Staff Training and Qualifications (a new ‘element), processes have been written in to reflect those relevant to our sector, and the business results are put alongside the academic results (another new element).

Pickering, 1999, p.8

This model seems much more ‘graspable’ than some of the others presented (e.g., ISO 9002). I also feel that seeing which elements affect or impact each other makes it easy to see what to prioritise.

Pickering (1999, p.9) leaves us with some questions to consider before introducing any quality initiatives:

Pickering, 1999, p.9

There is a lot to unpack in this article, and I’ve read it twice now and still getting my head around everything. I will say, though, that this article is a great example of how to show the difference between management and training. We often think that being an academic manager means being a trainer, and often it does. however, there is so much more going on behind the scenes, and this article sheds light on all of it.

I love a good article that makes me think, and this article has given me plenty of food for thought. Here are some of the things I’m going to be exploring because of the article:

  • What standards list could we use in the academy? Which ones can we ‘steal’ and adapt to our context?
  • Which of our competitors should we be looking to emulate? In which areas (e.g., marketing, training, etc.)?
  • How can we improve the evaluation of the business so that can collect valid and usable data from all the necessary ‘elements’?
Article excerpts My thoughts
Increasing global and local competition requires us to seek the differences that make the difference to our customers. (p.5) And we should let customers know that we are finding these differences, and constantly getting better BECAUSE we evaluate our processes.
…their level of satisfaction. (p.5) Note the use of satisfaction, not happiness.
Asking the question “How does this satisfy our customers?” is a good way of ensuring that quality means and ends do not become confused. (p.5)So, we should have specific questions for each stakeholder for each applicable, relevant activity.
The definition of quality is that of the customer, not the supplier. (p.5) I wonder how this fits in which the idea of NNESTs? Many of the parents that come through ask if our teachers are ‘native’, to which we respond we have a global/international team of highly qualified and experienced teachers. Most parents don’t seem to continue with their ‘want’ to have the native speaker, but there are some that leave because of this.
Quality organisations are obsessed with listening to their customers and acting on their replies. (p.6) Data collection is vital, although time consuming. Thinking back on this year, though, the data we collected from parents through questionnaires has helped us identify ‘holes’ in some of our processes. We wouldn’t have found these (quickly anyway) without this data.
They also emphasise that quality is a journey and not a destination. Quality obsessed companies seek to improve continuously all of their key services. (p.6) Love this.
Quality customer service still remains potentially one of the key differentiators between suppliers providings remarkably similar language learning experiences. (p.7)It’s easy to forget that the extra ‘touch’ can lead to really positive results, generally in the form of ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising. Phillip’s article mentions the fact that it’s a lot easier to keep an existing customer than to find a new customer, so we should be really pushing customer service and the customer experience.
Nic underhill (1995) wrote that we need to focus on how effectively we monitor the language attainment of our customers. “Very few schools consistently collect truly comparable ‘before’ and ‘after’ test data, including an objective assessment of oral/aural skills. (p.8) Something that we need to get better at. The termly ‘exam’ is not good enough – we need something more ‘tangible’.
Chomsky once observed that no methodology was so bad that it prevented people from learning a language. There is a difference between improving the linguistic proficiency of customers and maximising their learning. (p.8)Bam! Love it! And this is why we should be ensuring that SLA and ISLA research is brought into academies!
At the end of the day the pursuit of excellence cannot be externally imposed upon the unwilling. If there is no desire within there will ultimately be no satisfaction without. (p.9) This is why we need to right team – with everyone on board and understanding of the expectations.

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