English language teaching: a troubled future?

Screenshot of the map of language schools in the Bournemouth area alone. Language schools can be found right across our region.

The pandemic

The ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ (TEFL) sector has for decades played a vibrant cultural and economic role across the UK, not just in the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) area. The spring and, especially, the summer seasons, used to see large numbers of foreign students arrive to study English, make new friends and enjoy the many things our towns have to offer: sandy beaches, places of historical and environmental beauty, nightlife and more.

Covid-19 brought about widespread social and economic disruption. As travel restrictions were imposed in spring 2020 the impact was obvious and immediate. Local buses that would have been packed with students heading to school were now travelling empty, whilst the interplay of different accents and languages was replaced by silence. As a TEFL teacher, my work disappeared.

As the weeks turned into months, and the grip of the pandemic tightened, it became increasingly clear that foreign language schools were facing ruin. Now, a year and a half into the global emergency, how have they fared?

A vibrant sector in trouble

Schools, teachers, admin staff, host-families and many others – like shop owners, restaurateurs, bus companies – suffered the consequences of foreign students staying away. Mike Zollo discusses the grave loss of cultural opportunities in his article: ‘The Grand Tour: blighted by Brexit?’ and the cost in business terms is material too. A sector that brought around £1.4bn to the UK economy in 2019 (about £140m to the BCP area), supporting some 35,700 jobs, essentially ground to a halt. Guido Schillig, Chair of the International Education Association, quoted industry figures showing that in 2020 English language teaching schools lost around 80 per cent of their business. Five of the BCP schools have closed for good.

The MLS school which closed in 2020. Photo by Sarah Cowley

As with many other organisations, schools tried to adapt by moving online, but faced challenges specific to their sector. Michael Duncan, Academic and Recruitment Manager at Bayswater Summer, which offers English language summer camps in Bournemouth and elsewhere, told me:

“During each of the lockdowns we’ve moved classes online and seen a take-up of about 60 per cent of students; the rest chose to postpone until we reopened for face to face. We’ve all learnt a lot about teaching on Zoom and it’s been really helpful how many online CPD (continuing professional development) sessions people have been putting on.”

David Jones, Chair of RALSA (Regional Accredited Language Schools Association) agreed that:

“switching to online learning helped some schools to continue trading through the lockdowns, but not every school was able to handle the switch and the technical/academic issues involved. Many schools have reported that this does not seem to be a long-term solution to the pandemic, as there seems to be less enthusiasm for online courses when these are compared to the full-immersion approach offered by face-to-face learning.”

From my own experience as a teacher, this would seem obvious, given that many – if not all – students are coming not only to learn English, but to explore a different culture and meet new people, as Mike Zollo has explained. Tim Essex, director of studies at Studio Cambridge’s English language school, points out in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement article, that there are economic and cultural implications for other sectors. UK universities which welcome applications from many former TEFL students may now see a significant drop-off in numbers coming from abroad.

3 Bournemouth schools. Photo by Sarah Cowley

A helping hand?

As the scale of the crisis became clear, the government was forced to introduce emergency measures to protect the economy and people’s livelihoods. Whilst the furlough scheme formed an important part of this support, Business Rates Relief (BRR) was discretionary for the TEFL sector and only a few local authorities – including BCP in 2020/21 – allowed language schools to apply.

According to Michael Duncan, “In contrast, the Sainsbury’s which is below our college” (in London) “has been granted business rates relief, despite being open and making money this whole time.”

Guido Schillig (Managing Director, Anglo-Continental School, Bournemouth and Chair, International Education Association) recently met with Paul Scully MP, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). He was told that councils could grant BRR but, although they had to offer this for some sectors, this does not seem to be the case for the TEFL sector so,

“we still do not know whether or not BCP has its discretionary power intact. This is very concerning to some schools where cash flow is critical. A demand for business rates could force them to close their doors.”

A ‘bounce-back’ grant of £100,000 from BCP Council, welcomed by RALSA, is for promoting the sector to help with recovery, rather than to mitigate any losses incurred over two ‘lost’ summer seasons.

The pandemic and Brexit: a destructive combination?

Those working in the TEFL sector are also concerned that Brexit will have serious and continuing consequences, although the Brexit related consequences are obscured in part by the global health emergency. Whilst many students travelling to the UK from the EU stay for only a number of weeks – thus not requiring visas – they do need passports. Language schools are at risk of being caught in the broad net cast by legislation that is intended to regularise immigration.

According to Guido Schillig: “Having a passport for European children and teenagers is not as common as for their British counterparts. This means that Ireland and Malta, competing destinations for English language students, now have a competitive advantage. Europeans were allowed to work or take internships while they studied English before the United Kingdom separated from Europe.”

David Jones says: “Amongst RALSA members and other organisations in our sector, there is deep concern for the devastating situation that faces English language teaching schools due to the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new immigration system post-Brexit and the ongoing travel restrictions for students arriving in the UK.”

The future

English language schools have been forced to adapt and, in some cases, have done well in moving online and creating ‘hybrid’ lessons, for example, which mix smaller ‘in-class’ numbers with on-line attendees. Guido Schillig believes:

“…that the demand for English language travel will return and therefore we will do whatever is required to navigate our schools through this enormously difficult and unprecedented period. For those English language schools that do survive there will great opportunities for them and the economy of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole.”

With the help of the vaccine rollout, the government is keen to move on from the pandemic and the necessary short-term support offered to many sectors. However, the TEFL sector, which has been such an enduring and vibrant part of the UK economy and its cultural life, is still facing unabated damage. Language schools need some short-term financial support, like business rates relief, now and until they are able to open fully again. The funding boost for advertising may help bring that time closer, but it will not overcome the new, structural barriers caused by leaving the EU.