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Bristol Cream: dreams do come true for the Duncans

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Since EL Gazette launched its rankings, ELC Bristol has always been a Centre of Excellence based on the British Council’s inspection reports. But achieving the perfect score and becoming the number-one-ranked school out of more than 500 British-Council-accredited centres was the realisation of a dream for John and Margaret Duncan, the principal and director of the school. Below, John explains what makes the school special.

In many ways, there is nothing special in the sense that we don’t run a wide range of courses, just intensive general English and Cambridge and Ielts exam prep for students who are sixteen and over. What has been key is that the school has always attracted and retained a core of Delta-qualified teachers who, along with the students, have been at the centre of everything we do.

We really do personally know and support every student in the school and each individual student is mentioned by name at our Friday meetings, which we all attend. There is a close relationship between our staff and students. Our teachers run the social programme, go to all the parties – and there is even a teacher/student football game every Thursday. Maybe this ethos stems back to the time when we were a teachers’ co-operative. The school was founded in 1969. When the owners retired in 1979, ownership of the school passed on to the school’s seven teachers – I was the youngest of those teachers! In those days, we had around forty students in the school and we used to take it in turns to run the office. It was a real challenge to attract students to Bristol, which was then an unknown destination – not that we had any idea about marketing. After all, we were all teachers! Over the years, as partners left they were not replaced as it was difficult to find teachers who were prepared to invest in the school.

However, the teachers’ ethos remained with relatively long holidays, good conditions and a real student focus. In 1987 I too left and went with my wife Margaret and our children to join Margaret’s family in Sydney, where I got involved in setting up the Australian Centre for Languages. What an eye-opener that was! From a zero start, we had 100 students by the end of the first year, and 600 by year three. I was a man in a suit, travelling all over the world promoting the school. Although it was exciting, I had little contact with the students – the aspect of the job which I always found most rewarding, so in 1993 we packed our bags again and headed back to Bristol, where I am happy to say the remaining partners asked me to rejoin the school, this time as principal, hoping that my marketing experience in Australia would help with enrolments in Bristol. Margaret also became a partner and director, taking over responsibility for welfare and accommodation.

Enrolments picked up and in 1997, when David Berrington Davies, the principal of the ‘other’ school in Bristol, decided to retire, we were persuaded to take on Abon and all its teachers. ELC Bristol now became a family-run school with two buildings located close together in Clifton. Since then, with Bristol now firmly on the student map, we have always been more or less full with between 160 and 200 students throughout the year. However, learning from the Australian experience, on reaching capacity, rather than expand, we reduced demand by cutting many courses and concentrating on our core market, GE and exam prep. Of late, as UK schools attempt to weather the adverse market conditions, what has really helped us maintain enrolments and keep us at the top of the rankings has been our membership of TEN (The English Network). We are good friends and the key has been sharing best practice with a small number of quality schools who you totally trust. We remain small independent schools but we have the strength of a chain, and it is really no surprise that ‘TEN’ is the highest-ranked school association in the UK.