Taking the Queen’s English across the world

Parimala S. Rao | Updated on March 09, 2015

Roger Johnson, Chief Operating Officer, Cambridge English Language Assessment

It is present in 130 countries, from Germany to Kazakhstan, and Spain to Mongolia, boasts of 19 centres in India and collaborates with governments, corporate bodies and academic institutions. A multinational corporation? On the contrary, the wide reach and enviable credentials characterise a British academic institution that is over a century old — the Cambridge English Language Assessment.

Cambridge English, a not-for-profit organisation within Cambridge University, has been delivering the Cambridge English Certificate test since 1913. Over the last century, it expanded into other regions and has become an especially sought-after certification in India, where it started operations in 1995.

Roger Johnson, Chief Operating Officer, Cambridge English Language Assessment, who visited Chennai recently, says there is an increasing demand for the certification from test-takers the world over. “Across regions, governments are recognising that facility in an international language is crucial to economic growth. And the language chosen is usually English,” he says. CE, which prides itself on the consistently high quality of its assessment system, delivers the test across a wide range of user groups — school-children, university students, teachers, business-persons and other special groups.

The Cambridge English language test is today taken by over 4 million people a year. There are 2,700 exam centres and 50,000 schools in the worldwide network.

Better communication skills

It’s reflective of growing aspirations, says Johnson. “Parents want their children to have the edge that better communication skills give a young person, especially in getting admission to courses of higher studies or in a professional environment.”

Angela Ffrench, Director of India Operations, South and South-East Asia, agrees. “Delivering the tests across India has been an incredible learning experience for us,” she says, adding that “it is heartening to see how proud the parents are when their child is awarded the Cambridge certificate. They are happy with the additional skill gained and see better employability prospects as well.”

It isn’t just children who are benefiting from the tests. Corporates are increasingly demanding that students have superior English language skills. Says Shakila Mathew, Professor and HoD, English, Bannari Amman Institute of Technology, in Sathyamangalam, Erode, TN, “While we can see the rising interest amongst the students in getting an international certification, there have also been regular requests from firms such as Cognizant and UST Global which insist on the campus recruits having a BEC (business English certificate). In fact, Tata Consultancy Services provided an added weightage to the candidates with BE certificates during their recruitment drives, and reimbursed the expenditure they incurred in the process of certification.”

Supporting teachers

In India, Cambridge English (CE) works with a number of government and private schools, as well as with engineering colleges, arts and science colleges and B-schools. It has tie-ups with 700 schools and about 500 colleges across the country.

Support for teachers and the teaching system is a key aspect of CE’s activity, with seminars and training modules designed to explain methodologies that make the teaching process more communicative. In the last nine years, CE has organised several teacher training seminars, workshops for school and college principals and conferences for policy makers.

“Tech Mahindra is a partner with CE in its upskilling programme for corporation school teachers. While for students in corporation schools, passing the Cambridge test is a goal to aspire to, even the elite schools seek the validation of an internationally renowned certificate,” said Johnson.

Leveraging tech to teach

For CE, it’s equally important that its examiners are trained according to the specific level of test being delivered and based on whether it is a written or spoken output. There are six levels of the test, based on the Common Framework of Reference, starting with the basic ‘threshold’ level to the top ‘proficiency’ grade that B-schoolers aim for. The exams are designed to leverage the latest technology and backed by research on developments in applied linguistics and assessment theory, so that they offer an accurate and relevant evaluation of language skills.

There are over 60 trainers in India, who themselves receive continuous training, often through webinars. Many such short video tutorials on a range of topics are up on YouTube now.

The costs of taking the test vary widely across levels and in various regions, with the cost of taking the basic level test in India costing anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000, depending on how much of this amount is subsidised by the school or corporate partner. In Portugal, for instance, when 120,000 14-year-olds took the exam, the Government absorbed all the costs, in partnership with a telecom major and a bank.

With CSR funds aplenty in India now, CE is working on various models to rope in public and private partners as it is such collaborations that go a long way in helping people get better jobs while also benefiting the economy and enhancing the quality of growth.

(With video inputs from Vinay Kamath)

Published on March 09, 2015

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