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Terry’s Tricks Of The Trade


Management consultant, trainer and coursebook writer Terry Phillips reveals four things he wishes he’d known before he started his language school. I entered my first ELT classroom in the summer of 1974, and a mere ten years later started my own language school with my wife, who had only been in language teaching nine years at that time. The school was in the Sultanate of Oman.

I knew a little about management, having served for four years as a DTOM for the British Council, but that was management in a corporate environment working within a funded budget where losses would be covered (and profits returned to the UK). When we started the school, the oil price stood at $35 a barrel and Oman had money coming out of its … wells. Lucrative government contracts were relatively easy to get and quality teaching led to commercial success, it seemed. Within nine months of us starting, the oil price fell to $8 a barrel and the government froze training budgets. As a result, we struggled even to stay afloat – but, as all teachers know, you learn when you get things wrong, not when everything is going right. We got a lot of things wrong, but we also did a lot of introspection – it’s what we did before the internet – and gradually pieced together the principles of running a small-to medium- sized private language school. So I proudly present to you the 43 things I wish I’d known … starting with four this month.

A school with a lot of students has more chance of making a profit than one with only a few students. But it took me five years to work out the real profitability model for language schools, it’s more complex than the model for retail, for example. [For more details, come to one of my English UK sessions on Improving Profitability!] One thorny issue is step costs. Businesses have fixed costs, like premises rent and overheads, and variable costs, like teachers on hourly pay, but they also have costs which suddenly step up, like needing another teacher when class size exceeds the maximum permitted. Language schools can grow into loss, and busyness is not always good business.

I came from the ELT classroom so my first concern in starting a school was the quality of teaching. But quality teaching is a given for most language students. They’re also looking for quality in many other areas – premises, customer care, even the school cafeteria’s coffee. Quality, I learnt eventually, is what the customer perceives as quality. In 25 years of doing consultancy for language schools after I sold my own school, I never found it was the quality of the teaching that was dragging a school down. In one case, they’d fallen into loss because they sold off their student car park for short-term gain. Everything must be good for a language school to be perceived as good.

Don’t spend all your time managing your teachers and staff like a Director of Studies. You are also Marketing Director. Get out and sit in other people’s offices – companies and government departments with students to train – or go to conferences and display your wares. Maybe you decide to go down the route of language travel agents, but even then you need to have a presence in the global market which is independent of your agents. Remember! The 25 per cent to 40 per cent of course fees you give up to an agent is actually a marketing cost. If you do your own marketing for some of your business, you save that commission and you will probably find that, even with your travel and other expenses taken into account, you generate a better net income than you get through agents.

When do you fix something? Usually, just after it breaks, often disastrously. Bad or non-existent admin systems don’t usually kill people but they do dissatisfy them, they make it harder to grow. Get a staff handbook from Day One – I can send you a draft if you like – so people know what they’re signing up to when they join your tiny language school. Your first staff members will think it’s overkill, but you can only run a school as a happy club for a short time. You need systems in place for HR and day to day admin. You need to establish social distance from the people you employ. This, of course, is very hard if you are starting a school – as I did – in a country other than your own, and employing teachers from your own country who want to socialise with you. But you can’t have a dinner party with someone one evening and conduct a disciplinary meeting with them the next. In the end I discovered that ALL management is about managing expectations, of students, staff and other stakeholders like training officers.