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November 2017

Is veteran school chain Bell English turning its back on UK EFL?

The operating company Bell English is abandoning plans to increase its number of language schools in the UK, citing ‘a significant shift towards in-country English-language tuition’ and away from language travel.

It hopes to diversify instead, offering pre-university and kindergarten programmes in overseas markets, according to its 2016 financial statement filed at the UK’s Companies House.

The 60-year-old school group, which was separated out of the Bell Education Trust in 2012, experienced a 36 per cent drop in turnover in its first five years of operation.

The results are broadly in line with the 30 per cent drop in numbers of student weeks in the same period reported by trade association English UK. But this is only once the figures are adjusted to take account of the 2012 closure of loss-making projects, including Bedgebury boarding school. In a market where currency is king and few players hedge the exchange rate, the dramatic drop in the value of sterling after the Brexit vote has seen turnover rebound in most UK language schools.

The 2017 figures are not available for Bell but the UK company made an operating loss in three of the last four years. In 2016 a small loss was turned into a profit when the UK company received a £314,000 dividend from its profitable Swiss subsidiary.

A Bell spokesperson told the Gazette that it would prefer to wait to comment until it had replaced former chief executive Greg Hoile, who resigned in September. It ‘remains committed, above all, to the highest quality of education and student experience available in the market’, they said in a statement.

In 2016 sector analysts Student Marketing said the global market in English language travel had peaked and predicted a gradual decline. Its research, however, shows that growth of in-country private-sector language provision is correlated with an increase in language travel, not a decline.

Globally, the in-country industry seems to be holding steady, with the British Council reporting 400,000 enrolments in its teaching centres for the second year running. The Council opened its first centre in China, the world biggest English language market, this year.

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