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You can’t manage without study

Terry Phillips explains why language schools can’t afford to employ untrained managers

Why does anyone need to study management in ELT? I certainly never did so before I started managing, first a section of a private language school, then a British Council centre. I never studied it before my wife and I opened our own language school in Oman in 1985. In fact, the first time I seriously began to study educational management – ELT management was still too arcane for any publications specifically in the area – was when we branched out into management training in our school, and the trainer we employed spotted serious failings in the way I was managing – or, more accurately, failing to manage. It dawned on me, belatedly, that there was a body of knowledge here to be learnt, a theoretical underpinning to good management practice, and if I could become a master of this body of knowledge, my day-to-day management would improve, with the result that we would deliver better, more consistent educational products, and, at the same time, become more profitable.

As I learnt more about management theories, I experienced again and again what Charles Handy calls the Ah hah effect, that moment when you realise the cause of something and say, ‘Ah hah! That’s why that worked’ (or, more likely, didn’t). If you manage without knowing about management, many if not most of your actions will fail to achieve their objective. Even when you know what you should do, you will experience failure, but it is possible then to go back to the body of knowledge and, usually, see where your implementation failed rather than the theory. The unexamined management life is not worth living.

So I am now a total believer in studying management. However, a trained manager of an ELT institute is still the exception rather than the rule. Why is this? Because the normal route to management in the profession is straight out of the classroom into the director’s office. This is strange. If you are in retail or production or logistics, I get the impression that learning about management before being promoted to a managerial position, or upon promotion, is natural. But in ELT the ability to teach seems to be taken as proof of ability to manage, and subject knowledge is seen as the only knowledge an ELT manager needs. There are great dangers in this approach, especially for private language schools.

We can see why if we take one widely used definition of management: maximising resources to meet objectives. The problem for an untrained ELT manager, a person who has come straight from the classroom, is that the objective which is most in focus is the pedagogic one, the need to deliver high-quality service to a diverse range of customers. But quality in private language schools must be delivered at a profit. This does not mean that academic excellence can be lost in pursuit of profit. Indeed, at the higher end of the market only sustained quality-assured academic excellence will lead to an overall profit. But it does mean that the effect on the bottom line of all management action and inaction has to be understood and taken into account in the decision-making process.

One complicating factor in ELT is that there are a large number of variables which affect the bottom line, such as fees, discounts, bad debts, average class size and input costs. Many of these have a pedagogic element. For example, class size is sometimes determined by supposed lack of homogeneity – ‘We must split this class into two because there are two different levels.’ Input costs rise when teachers provide five handouts for each student for a 45-minute lesson despite the fact that the students have already been given a free coursebook. Costs are sometimes hidden. For example, employing novice teachers may seem like a cheap way to provide the tuition input, until the cost of recruitment and in-service training is taken into account, not to mention the cost in terms of reputation of novice teachers failing in the classroom. Even more dangerous is that responsibility for managing the many interrelated variables often falls to different people in an ELT institution, so someone needs to understand the interplay and ensure that a decision taken on a purely pedagogic basis does not have a disastrous effect on the bottom line.

Why study management in ELT? Because private language schools simply cannot afford to employ untrained managers, as I believe owners and principals are beginning to understand. Schools must appoint trained managers or, at the very least, put managers on in-service training courses as soon after promotion from the chalk face as possible.


Terry Phillips has been in ELT management for more than forty years. He works on the management module for the Reading University MADL and lectures on the DELTM for English UK. Every summer he runs the two-week management in ELT course for Nile, which this year is from 2–12 June. Contact Sarah Mount on sarah@nile-elt.com for more information