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Built on firm family foundations

As a third generation of Lindsays joins St Giles International, Melanie Butler asks founding father Paul about his sixty-year career in English language teaching.

I always think of you as one of the founding fathers of British EFL – the first St Giles school was opened in 1955. What inspired you to set up a language school?

I first became involved in English language teaching in 1953. I was a struggling teacher of English and French at a polytechnic, and I got a summer job at a language school in central London. It was packed with adult learners from all over the place, but I was appalled at the unprofessional way the teachers were managed, the complete lack of professional attitude from the school. There was no teacher training – it was a case of, here’s Eckersley’s Essential English book 1, go to classroom X and teach page 27. It was so boring, so chaotic. I believed I could do it better. I had no money, I had just got married and had a baby. I started the school with a £100 loan from my grandfather. That’s what got me started, my grandfather and the extraordinary support of my wife.

The St Giles Trust is actively involved in teacher training, not only offering scholarships but also working with governments. How did you get involved in teacher training and why do you think it is of such importance to St Giles International?

We got into teacher training very early on. I realised the staffroom was full of gifted amateurs – there was a poet, Jon Silkin, the musicologist Edward Lockspeiser, and David Mercer the playwright. Actually [Nobel prizewinning playwright] Harold Pinter applied too – he was a cousin of mine and came to me for a job. But I turned him down because he didn’t have a degree!

I knew that having a degree was the minimum. But it wasn’t enough. So, some time in 1960 or 1961 we started running teacher training, part-time three-month courses. The great Malcolm Campbell was the brains behind it – he went on to found Arels, now English UK. From very early on the courses were open to teachers from other schools. Then one day I phoned the RSA to suggest they should issue certificates for these courses – the rest as they say is history. Though now it is Cambridge who gives the awards.

The main aim of the St Giles Trust, which I set up in 1970, was and still is to provide teacher training in our schools on a non-profit basis and to offer scholarships for teacher trainees. This is not the only thing we do – we have the Central London Library of ELT and other projects – but it is an important one.

Teacher training isn’t just important for St Giles, we are running the first Trinity-certificated course for training trainers – it’s vital for the whole of ELT.

St Giles schools in the UK get astonishing results from the inspectors of both the British Council and the ISI scheme. Highgate is the latest of your schools to become a Centre of Excellence, which means St Giles has three out of four schools in the top 10 per cent of schools in the country, and all four did well in the ISI. I know you were involved in the very beginning of accreditation – why is it so important?

The real inspiration for the move to get schools recognition, as we called accreditation in those days, was Malcolm Cambell. I think it is vital for any profession to be judged objectively by an external body which knows something about the field. The process gives the foreign student the knowledge that he or she is going to a decent school – one which provides minimum standards, one which has able teachers and helps students to learn. And it keeps out the unprofessional. It has been so hard to make ELT a profession and I think I’ve done my bit to help.

What do you think has been your biggest achievement?

For the profession, helping to introduce teacher training early on. As a school, I think our achievement is providing high-quality teaching plus high-quality welfare at moderate fees. St Giles has never aimed to be the Harrods of ELT, rather the Marks & Spencer, at least as it used to be, or John Lewis.

I am most proud of training though, and the Educational Trust – that’s what keeps me fairly young. I’m really thrilled that we are offering teacher training now to governments in other countries – Malawi, Ethiopia, Bangladesh. Next year we’re planning to train teachers again in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The third generation of Lindsays is now entering the business. How important do you think it is for the continuing success of St Giles that it remains a family business?

I think the great thing about a family business is that the management have a very deep, very personal involvement. Now my son Mark has chosen his daughter to come into the business on the marketing side. I think she is brilliant and very brave – she goes off to countries where it is difficult to do business as a woman. She does it brilliantly, very sophisticated.

I think in our family the younger generations have picked up the essentials, but they have adapted and modernised them. They do things I wouldn’t have thought of. For example, some years ago Mark introduced interactive whiteboards. They have proved wonderful for teachers and students. He makes all the decisions now. I can just do what I like – which is teaching.

You still teach?

I still teach at the University of the Third Age, and have done for years. I also lecture in the history of language teaching at London Metropolitan University. I like to keep my hand in. As long as people want me to teach them, I’ll keep on going. That’s why I came into the business – I love to teach.