In 2014, Kevin McNally decamped from London to sleepy Devon to take the helm of the Torquay International School. He tells old friend Melanie Butler how he discovered welcoming host families, surfing lessons and beautiful countryside.
- You were once seen as a permanent part of the London EFL scene, working for the Hampstead School of English and then for travel company Tui. What made you up sticks and head for Devon?
When Hampstead School was sold to Tui Travel in 2010, part of the deal was that I had to stay for at least three years. After about a year, I was made marketing director of the group of schools that Tui owned.
Halfway through it became clear that the corporate world was not for me. I was used to a certain level of autonomy and instant decision-making that is simply not possible in a large organisation. I missed the individual relationships with agents and partners at which independent schools excel.
I started looking for my next move. I had known the then-owner of Torquay International School (TIS), Judith Hands, for years. Around 2013 she indicated that she was looking for an eventual exit from the business. It was very important to her that the school was handed on to someone who understood the ethos and would allow the school to grow and develop in a way that reflected its long heritage. So, we started talking.
At the time, the location of Torquay International School was a huge stumbling block, a deal-breaker. The 2.5-hour journey from Paddington meant it was too far from home, and would mean too much of an upheaval. I started looking for other opportunities, but whatever avenue I explored, my heart, and increasingly my head, took me back to Torquay.
- What surprised you most about Devon?
To be honest, I knew very little about it. My main concern was how I would convince people to try Devon as opposed to London, Oxford or Brighton. What has been a fantastic surprise is that Devon sells itself.
There is a small, discerning class of agent and student who is already familiar with the region and what we can add to the language learning experience. There is the beautiful countryside with national parks and endless local attractions. Every weekend, we offer hiking on Dartmoor for the over-fifties, surfing lessons for the younger students and gastronomic weekends in nearby Exeter. There is something for everybody.
- I remember when we met after the move, you were very excited about the host families…
The standard of host families in Torquay was a huge surprise. I think most schools in London, in most of the big destinations in fact, would agree that finding host families that meet students’ expectations is one of the biggest challenges.
Torquay families are so different. Their socio-economic level is much closer to that of the students. They have time and the inclination to actually spend time with students, have dinner with them, take them on days out. This was one of the hidden gems of TIS that needed to be promoted much more aggressively (see page 15).
- And you established another Devon speciality young learners course?
In all my career, I had never been involved in young learners. It just never appealed. But In my first summer in Torquay, I saw so many operators – mainly non-accredited – bringing in students by the busload. At TIS we had the infrastructure, the academic background, the fantastic host families. Why not offer these young learners quality, safeguarding and good fun? We launched young learners courses in 2016 and numbers tripled by 2017. As for 2018, some weeks are already closed to certain nationalities. We entered the market very cautiously. I believe that welfare and safeguarding of young learners must take priority. It’s been a steep learning curve. Interestingly, clients are more attracted by our welfare and safeguarding standards than the lessons. Very high staff-to-student ratios, intensive training for new staff, Level 3 Safeguarding courses for everyone, all costly and time-consuming. But it’s the minimum we would expect for our own children. How can we not want the same for the kids in our care?