Many students who are just starting their IELTS journey ask the question:
Which is better – IDP or the British Council?
And, I understand why, I mean, it’s logical – there has to be SOME difference between them, right? There can’t be two organisations offering exactly the same service to people, can there? Well, yes, there can! 😲
As we will see in today’s blog, IDP and British Council test centres are, in most ways, exactly the same. However, does that mean that all test centres are equal?
🙅♀️ 🙅♂️Hell no! 🙅♀️ 🙅♂️
There can be be definite differences between them. So, let’s change the question from Which is better – IDP or British Council? to
Which is the BEST test centre for me to sit my IELTS exam?
and now there IS a definite answer (just not one as simple as IDP or British Council!) So, to understand more fully, why don’t we begin today’s blog by looking at
🏗 THE STRUCTURE OF THE IELTS ORGANISATION 🏗
So, even though IELTS is ONE EXAM, it is actually run by THREE separate ORGANISATIONS:
- Cambridge English Language – who produce the exams
- British Council – who are based in the UK and run some of the 1,200 test centres
- IDP – who are based in Australia and run the other half of the 1,200 test centres
I always think of IELTS like a pyramid or a tree 🌲. At the top of the tree are Cambridge. Their job is to write all of the exams. Now, this is a HUGE job, as they need to provide three or four high quality exams every 10 days, but essentially that is Cambridge’s only role – ensuring that every IELTS test taken across the world provides a fair and valid assessment of a test-taker’s language.
Once those tests are ready for use, they get passed to IDP and the British Council, who oversee the actually running of the test centres in different countries. Interestingly, some countries ONLY have IDP, some ONLY have BC, and some have BOTH. I guess the two organisations divide the countries geographically, but I have never actually taken the time to look into this in more detail!
The important thing to understand is that the role of the IDP and BC is to make sure that the exams are given in the right condition. This means that the security procedures are followed, that the examiners are trained properly, or that the marks given are fair. However, you have to understand that even though they oversee these things, they DO NOT OWN THE TEST CENTRES! 🙅♀️
Yes, that’s right, every one of those 1,200 Test Centres is AN INDIVIDUAL BUSINESS which is simply licensed by either IDP or the British Council to run the exam. They are FRANCHISES. Theoretically, anybody can open a centre as long as they are approved by Cambridge or IDP.
Let’s put this all into a diagram to make it clearer:
So, what does this mean for test-takers? Well, it means that everything in connection to THE EXAM is the same in British Council and IDP centres, because ALL exams come from Cambridge. Also, both the BC and IDP follow the same procedures for overseeing the running of the exam, which means that:
- The EXAM QUESTIONS will be the SAME in both centres
- You will do the TESTS IN THE SAME ORDER and have the SAME AMOUNT OF TIME
- The EXAM-DAY RULES in both centres are THE SAME (no phones, watches, etc)
- The SPEAKING AND WRITNG EXAMINERS are TRAINED IN THE SAME WAY
- The SPEAKING AND WRITING EXAMINERS USE THE SAME MARKING CRITERIA
But, even though the EXAM will be the same in every test centre, the SERVICE you get will not. Remember, test centres are franchises. Think of them like McDonald’s or Subway restaurants 🍟.
They all offer the same PRODUCTS, but the SERVICE you get in each individual business can be vastly different. Yes, the Big Mac you buy in every McDonald’s in the world is the same, but the speed you get served, or the cleanliness or the restaurant, or the friendliness of the staff can be wildly different 👈 🤔
It’s the same for IELTS, while the exam you sit might be the same in every test-centre, the level of service you receive can be vary dramatically. Remember, test-centres are businesses who are trying to make a profit! Every test centre charges more of less the same for each test so they can’t increase their revenue, but they can decrease their costs.
They can choose where the exam is held (nice hotels are expensive 🏨 💰), or how much they pay examiners 💸, or if they invest in expensive wireless headphones 🎧, or if they have a flexible cancellation policy, or if the speaking tests are held on the same day or a difference one, etc, etc, etc And it is all of THESE THINGS that make each exam centre different and, thus, affect your IELTS experience.
So, here are a list of things that I would consider when choosing a test-centre near you:
- Where will your exam be held? Will it be in a school, or a local hotel? Will there be air-conditioning? Heating? What about soft chairs? Remember, the exam lasts at least 3 hours, so you need to be comfortable!
- Will you be given headphones for the listening exam? For me, this is a deal-clincher. I have real problems with my hearing, so I would definitely opt for a centre that gave out individual headphones to be used during the test.
- If there are no headphones, does the centre have a good stereo system and a CD player that doesn’t jump or echo?! I’m serious!!! There is nothing worse than being in a listening exam and not being able to hear the CD. REMEMBER – IF THIS HAPPENS ON YOUR TEST DAY COMPLAIN IMMEDIATELY.
- How far from your house is the test centre? If you are lucky, you will have your Speaking Test on the same day as the other 3 modules. But, it’s also possible to have it up to a week before or a week later! You need to factor this into your decision! Will you be able to make get to a test centre in another city TWICE? Can you afford to travel TWICE? Sometimes the closest option is the best just for this reason alone!
- Which test date are available? IELTS Tests can book up quickly in some cities. Don’t take an exam before you feel prepared.
- How friendly are the administrative staff? This might seem trivial, but I think it is significant. When you call the test centre, are the staff helpful? Do they explain everything to you in a clear way? Do they make the booking process easy? On test day, you are going to feel stressed, so it’s important that everything around you is as calm as possible. A well-organised exam will help you to relax.
- What do previous test-takers say about the centre? Now, this one is perhaps a bit controversial. As I have already said, all IELTS examiners are trained in the same way and are checked regularly to make sure that they are marking to the correct level, so I’m sceptical of stories about examiners always mark low or fell asleep in a speaking exam. However, I do know that despite IELTS best efforts, they are a large organisation and it is hard to maintain 100% exam fairness (that’s why there is the ability to ask for a remark). So, if everybody is complaining about a centre in your area, then I would steer clear and try another one. Particularly if the complaints are about organisation – delayed start times, sudden changes to speaking exam, an unexpected move to a different venue, etc
So, let’s go back to our original question: What’s the difference between IDP and British Council test centres? Nothing! What’s the different between individual test centres? EVERYTHING! If you have had a good or bad experience in a test centre, I would love you to tell me about it in the comments below. 👇👇👇👇👇👇👇 🚀
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