Interview with Peter Etherton for the British Boarding Network – October 2018

Peter Etherton was Interviewed for the British Boarding Network in October!  Read on for the full article… 

How has the summer been for you and what have been the highlights?

We had a great summer.  I’ve just been selecting photos for our next brochure and they remind me of all the amazing things that happen at an Etherton summer course – the unique social activities, the workshops and trips, the strong friendships that develop between our pupils and our British Student Hosts – and of course, the solid teaching, 30 hours a week, that is the basis of our courses.

I’ve heard you say that you don’t like the description ‘summer camp’.  Why is that?

You’re right, we are not a summer ‘camp’.  A summer camp is primarily a holiday experience: English language plus entertainment.  Our courses offer so much more than that.  We provide a real boarding school experience during the summer, with students studying English and up to 10 academic subjects; strong discipline; trained staff – our staff-student ratio is about 1:3 overall; and a complete focus on helping the individual student.  We provide academic summer courses, not camps!  Sorry for this little rant!

That’s OK!  So, do most of your students go on to UK schools after their summer course with Etherton?

Yes, about 70%.  The picture changes a bit every year, but generally more of the students who come to us in July just come for the summer and go home, whereas most of those who are still with us in August will go on to boarding schools after their time with us.  Basically, we provide pre-sessional courses, but they are also very suitable and relevant as ‘taster’ courses, for students who want to come and see if a British boarding education is for them.

Why do schools recommend that their new students should attend an Etherton summer course?

If they come to us for the summer, the main school will then receive students with considerable value added.  Their English will have improved.  They will have got over culture shock, and be a lot more confident.  They will understand boarding rules and routines.  Their technical vocabulary will be better.  Their study skills will be better.  They will know the rules of British sports.  They will know that good manners are important.  They will have a better idea of the ethos of boarding schools, and the importance of trying to integrate and participate in the life of the school.  The students will be ready to fit into their new schools smoothly, and start working strongly.  They are more likely to succeed in their education.  This costs the school nothing, so it makes sense for schools to recommend us.

Do you have problems with visas for your students?

This summer has not been too bad.  We have had to develop quite a lot of expertise about visas over the years.  We pioneered the Tier 4 partnerships mechanism – this allows a student to attend a pre-sessional summer course and then go directly to the main school on a single visa.  Since the Points-Based System was introduced in April 2009, we have built up an impressive list of about 160 partner schools.  Belinda Holley, our Head of Partnerships, is now in charge of this area.  We continue to welcome new partnerships and this year we are delighted to have added Rugby, Bloxham, Headington, Warwick and Kent College Canterbury – among others – to the list of partners.  We are always grateful for their cooperation.  I should mention BRP cards too – another task which keeps us busy.  Becki George handles those, and she sorted out almost 200 BRP card problems this summer.

Peter, going back a bit, what motivated you to start Etherton Education?  That was back in 2002, wasn’t it?

Yes, next summer will be our 18th summer.  Well, quite a few things came together at that time, but I’ll give you one example that sticks in my mind.  A few years before that I had been teaching in a British boarding school, and we had a group of Hong Kong students come and join us in Year 10.  One of them was – I’ll call him Michael Wong.  Michael stayed in school for 2 years, but led a completely Chinese experience, eating, studying and playing with his same group of friends all the time.  His English didn’t improve, he got poor GCSE results, and was asked to leave that school.  And then, a couple of years later, I was walking along a pavement in Hong Kong and suddenly somebody said, ‘Hello, Mr Etherton!’  It was Michael.  He was dressed in dirty jeans and T-shirt, and smoking a cigarette.  We had a short chat, and he told me was working as a porter, delivering air-conditioners for his uncle’s company.

How did you feel when you saw him?

I felt sad for Michael.  He had not done well in life.  His time in a UK school had been wasted.  He had not integrated, which meant his English never developed.  He had not participated in the life of the school.  I felt we ought to be able to do better, so we started our company to provide a bridge for international students like him into British education.

And so you started your pre-sessional courses.  Tell me about some of the recent developments?

We’ve run our Pre-GCSE, Pre-A-Level and Pre-IB courses for years, and introduced a Junior Academic course for ages 10 to 12, which has proved very successful.  Recently we’ve also looked at some of the developments in our partner schools to try to see how we could help.  For example, around 40 of our partner schools now offer a One-Year GCSE course.  This can be quite tough, so we have designed a 6-week summer course which we call Fast Track.  It’s a high-level programme for students who will go directly to start a One-Year GCSE course in September, and works brilliantly.

And this year you have something called the ‘Pre-Three’?

Yes, in the past few years we’ve also had a small number of summer students who are older – usually 16 or 17 – but with very low English ability, down to IELTS 3.0.  And these students have been enrolled onto Three-Year A-Level programmes by our partner schools.  They will really struggle.  So in summer 2019 we will offer the ‘Pre-Three’ course to help such students.  It will move at a more gentle pace, helping the students to build up the basics in English language, with some teaching in their main subjects if they are able to understand them.  I don’t see this course as having very many students, but if our partners are accepting such students, we feel we ought to offer something appropriate to help them.

Finally, on a completely different note – you mentioned something to me about Red Pandas!  What’s that about?

Well, we always like to be imaginative and fun in our course design, and this summer we took our students at Badminton School to have a formal dinner inside Bristol Zoo –it was a memorable night!  I was chatting to the Marketing Manager, and she told me that the sponsorship of their Red Pandas enclosure was available.  The Red Panda is my favourite animal, so we leapt at the chance.  So now we are the official sponsors of the 2 Red Pandas at Bristol Zoo for the next few years!  Quite strange, but lots of fun and is a sign of our support for conservation!