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Cheap but not cheerful

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The more schools spend on marketing, the less they will have to spend on teachers, writes Melanie Butler, but alternative ways to run a language business do exist

There is a common belief among EFL teachers that the miserable terms and conditions faced by many are a result of rich money-grabbing language school owners.

Outside of the current boom markets such as China and Vietnam, this is unlikely to be the case.

In mature unregulated markets with easy access to native-speaker workers – such as Spain or Thailand – private language schools are predominately family-owned single centres or small regional chains.

The market is seasonal, the hours of opening restricted and profit margins low.

Without an unending supply of cheap migrant workers in the form of young native-speakers happy to work for low wages for a couple of years, many of these businesses would collapse.

This is not an easy market to make a fortune in. Though some people have.

Take Bertil Hult, the Swedish student who founded a little language travel agency, EF Education First, in the basement of his university residence in 1965.

The private company, now run by his sons, has branched out from language travel to own language schools, an international franchise, boarding schools, pathway programmes, business schools, to name but a few.

In 2015 Forbes magazine estimated his personal fortune at $5 billion.

Hult may be the only billionaire to get his start in English language teaching but there are a number of other multi-millionaires: Shane Lipscombe, who opened his first language school in Japan in 1977, and Khalid Mahmood who co-founded Apollo in Vietnam in 1994, for example.

So what differentiates their chains from the ‘mom and pop’ businesses that dominate the industry, at least in Europe?

Well, they’re known for looking after their teachers and offering them career prospects, but not for lavishing money on them.

What makes them different is that they all got into the market early and they all diversified outside the local language school business.

Above all, they all understood that sales and marketing are much more important in building educational brands than providing better-than-average teaching.

The hard reality is that the business model for language schools relies not on the quality of the teaching but on the quality of the salesmanship.

Parents, companies and governments still believe that the only thing required to learn a language is a native-speaker.

Trained ones are nice, experienced ones are nicer, but not nice enough to pay more money for.

Worse still, most native-speakers believe the same thing. If an English speaker wants to work abroad for a while, the first thing they think of is English teaching.

After all, what other work are they going to get, since they are unlikely to speak any other languages?

When you tell them they ought to be trained, they are often surprised. And, unless there is a recession at home or they need a particular qualification to get a visa, they will go for the cheapest quickest option. It should not come as a surprise.

After all, waves of European graduates have kept the hospitality industry going in Britain and Ireland for years, as they flee graduate unemployment at home for the chance to work for peanuts while they polish up their English.

And what about the 70,000 international students who head to the US every year to work in low-paid summer jobs?

Does all this mean that English language teachers should put up with the poor wages and terrible conditions that they currently face? Of course not.
It’s just means they are more likely to be successful in regulated growth markets like Ireland, where better teacher terms and conditions can help good language schools keep cheap competitors out by raising the cost of entry.

If the market you are working in is stagnating, move to a market that isn’t.

Teachers are more likely to be successful when they unionise and take on the big chains rather than going after the smaller family operations.
If you are working in a school with no career prospects, move to a big chain that has some and just keep moving.

Take Kaplan: In Britain it employs a cohort of permanent unionised teachers, typically paid towards the top rate in the local market, but make up the shortfall with agency workers.

A Kaplan teacher, we can estimate, earns up to £24,000 a year, slightly less than the starting salary for a primary school teacher.

But teaching is not where the money is. According to careers website Glassdoor, the average salary for a Kaplan sales person is £36,000 to £39,000 a year before commission.

Does it have to be like that?

Why isn’t there a not-for-profit employer that pays reasonable salaries in local terms and offers free further training and career prospects?

One that spends any excess money it makes on helping the disadvantaged, and is big enough, and famous enough, not to need to spend enormous amounts on sales and marketing.

There is one. It’s called the British Council. It turns over £1billion a year, including £400 million from its exams business, and in 2017 it enrolled 430,000 English language students – all of whom needed teachers.

There is just one catch.

There are no permanent jobs at classroom level, so if you want to build a career with it, you will have to keep moving countries.