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The Fonix: An interview with Jonathan Dykes

The Fonix, run for the first time in 2008, is a competition for students of English. It is also a marketing opportunity for schools. I caught up with Jonathan Dykes, the Chief Executive of the IHLS Group, to find out more.

Ed: Where did the idea come from? What were the main aims of the project?
JD: The idea came from Miquel Puig, who is the head of our Extraescolares teaching department. This is the department that organises extra-curricular English courses in local primary and secondary schools. The main aims were firstly to ensure that everyone working in main stream education is aware of IH and our range of services, and secondly to demonstrate our organisational capabilities and know-how to the Catalan Ministry of Education who are investing very heavily in trying to improve the standard of English language teaching in schools.

Ed: Why ‘The Fonix’ and who are the red and green characters in the logo?
JD: The competition needed a brand name and a graphic image of some description and ‘The Fonix’ seemed to fit the bill. The characters are based on phonetic symbols and we think they can be developed in all sorts of ways to help promote the competition.
[include Slide 12 showing the website & material and delete this message please]

Ed: Who is it aimed at?
JD: In our case, all school children in Catalunya studying at these levels:

  • 5th and 6th grade primary school
  • 1st to 4th grade secondary school
  • 1st and 2nd grade baccalaureate
    (= 8 levels in total)

Ed: How does it work?
JD: There are three selection phases. An initial selection at local school level, which is supervised by local teachers; this is followed by a regional final in each of the four provincial capitals; then the final selection process, which is held in Barcelona. (See Figure 1)

Ed: How was it promoted?
In a number of ways. We managed to get a newspaper group on board as a sponsor and they ran a number of articles on the competition. The Catalan Government also sent information out to most schools on our behalf. The participation of the Government was invaluable as, apart from helping to promote the event it also gave the competition an official seal of approval.

Ed: How did you liaise with the state schools? Who was responsible at IH for setting it up and the logistics of the different phases?
We set up a website which contained all the information about the competition and which also included an online registration system. The key people at IH who helped push the project forward were Miquel Puig (mentioned above); Sam Whiteley, our Head of Teacher Training, who was responsible for organising the examiners and other staff involved; Lynn Durrant, one of our most experienced YL trainers, who was responsible for developing the test materials; and our Marketing Director, Carmen Sánchez, who organised the award ceremony and made sure we got maximum PR benefit from the event.

Ed: Who got the state school teachers involved and how did they do this?
The state school teachers didn’t need much persuading. As soon as they heard about the competition, and as soon as they realised that it didn’t mean that much extra work, they began registering to participate in droves. Again, the Government’s involvement certainly helped, but the teachers didn’t need much pushing.

Ed: Did someone at the state school have to take on extra responsibility?
Yes, we asked each school to nominate a teacher who would ensure that the local phase of the competition ran smoothly and who could also act as our link person. There wasn’t that much work to do, but we needed someone to channel communication through.

Ed: Were there benefits for state school teachers?
I think the main benefit was that teachers were able to use the competition as a means of motivating their students to put some extra effort into their English studies. Even students who knew they were unlikely to win one of the top prizes seemed keen to see how far they could go. The teachers who had students in the final also received a prize of some sort – a methodology book, an invitation to our next ELT conference, a Net Languages Methodology course, that sort of thing.

Ed: What was the response to the competition?
Here are some numbers from 2008:
Schools registered: 237
First phase: 22,500 participants (approx.)
Second phase: 833
Final: 104

Ed: What did the students have to do at each phase?
The first two phases consisted of a written test which combined different types of activity. These tests were designed for four different age groups, so there was quite a lot of material to prepare. The final phase consisted of another written test and a short oral interview.

Ed: What are the advantages for IH schools in running competitions like this?
The main advantages for us are:

  • Huge amount of free publicity
  • Huge PR benefit, as we’re seen to be putting something back into the community.
  • Improved relationship with local schools and educational authorities
  • An opportunity to develop partnerships with other sponsors

Ed: Have state schools reported any benefits for their students? (e.g. in terms of motivation etc).
Yes. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers, parents, and senior people in the public administration have all thanked us for the initiative and said how timely and useful it has been.

Ed: Were all the students able to claim and use their prizes? Does the first prize include flights and accommodation?
Yes, all the prize winners have claimed and used their prizes. The first prize – a course at IH Belfast – included accommodation, but not flights. We’re hoping to get an airline involved next year to cover the cost of the flights.

Ed: The competition has clearly provided a huge amount of free publicity but has this translated into additional enrolments? How was the impact on enrolments measured?
I’m not sure if it is possible to measure the effect on our in-school enrolments – partly because at the time of writing, we’re still in the middle of our enrolment period. But it certainly has helped us achieve new ‘extraescolares’ classes in a number of schools and we are already working on at least three new projects with the Catalan Government which we probably wouldn’t be doing if it wasn’t for ‘The Fonix’.

Ed: Do you intend to take advantage of any post-competition marketing opportunities (e.g. publishing prize-winners writing/reports)
Yes, for example the students who won the first prizes will be invited to produce a video talking about their experiences which we’ll then put on our website and on YouTube.

Ed: Can other IH schools copy the idea?
Yes, we don’t claim to have a copyright on the idea, but if schools want to use our materials and procedures we will charge them an annual licence fee of between €1,000 – € 2,000 per region / country.

Ed: What do you get for this?
All the basics such as:

  • Adaptation of the Website
  • Copy of the online registration process
  • Adapted promotional materials
  • All test materials
  • Users’ guide to running the competition

Ed: Could this idea be adapted for adult learners (e.g. university students)?
I don’t see why not, although you may find it more difficult to enthuse university teachers…

Ed: The competition was clearly a success with an onshore market (i.e. the students and the language school are in the same country). Could it be adapted for schools with an offshore market (e.g schools in the UK or the USA)?
I see no reason why not. We have already had talks with the Instituto Cervantes about promoting a similar competition for students of Spanish around the world. It’s simply a question of finding the right partners for a venture of this kind.

Ed: What would you say to schools considering running their own competition?
Go for it. It’s possibly the most effective marketing you will ever do.

For more information on the competition visit: www.concurs-angles.info

Author’s Bio:
Jonathan has spent nearly all his professional life in IH. He started as a teacher in IH Mataro and is now Chief Executive of the IHLS Group, which includes 10 IH affiliated schools as well as Web-based language school Net Languages (for details, see www.ihls-group.com ) Jonathan lives in Barcelona and can be contacted at jdykes@bcn.ihes.com

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