Tuesday, May 21, 2024
HomeNewsBusiness NewsThe sorry state of UK language schools

The sorry state of UK language schools

Finding out exactly what has happened to the UK language sector during Covid isn’t easy. The British Council website only lists centres which are still accredited, not those which are no longer accredited, and doesn’t indicate if they’ve gone out of business.

The only list of closures in the UK was released by the association English UK last December. It listed 30 centres, one of which re-appeared alive and kicking last month.

Right now on the accreditation list, we have operations with no schools, no teachers and a company in liquidation; and those operations which were taken off the list when they went into liquidation and have re-emerged and been re-listed, even though the company is still in the hands of the liquidator. Now the British Council has decided other schools in liquidation will have their accreditation ‘suspended’ and their names withdrawn from the list pending investigation, but which maybe be re-instated.

It’s like a remake of The Night of the Living Dead. As one principal put it, “None of us knows who’s still in business, who’s legit and who’s not.”

On 9 August the following claim appeared in the Times Higher Education (THE), the newspaper for UK universities: “One in six of the UK’s 415 language schools – 69 in total – closed in the first year of the pandemic, with many more to follow.” But is that accurate?

Not exactly. To start with, there are not now, were not before Covid and probably never have been 415 accredited private language schools in the UK. At least, that’s the case if by language schools we mean privately owned centres largely dedicated to teaching English, or English plus other languages, all year round. Of the 413 accredited centres listed by the British Council as of 1 September, just 271 are described in their inspection reports as private language schools and four of those have been accredited during the pandemic.

If we eliminate schools from that list which do not run year round or which form part of a mainstream educational institution, such as a boarding school, further education college or university, the number of private language schools drops to 229. In March 2020, there were 282 private language schools, so the sector has seen a decline of just under 19%.

To be exact, 53 year-round language schools, almost one in five of those trading at the beginning of last year, are no longer listed as accredited. But this doesn’t mean they’ve all closed: judging from their websites, around a third of them are still trading.

Other accredited sectors have not taken such a hit. At the beginning of 2020, the Gazette had recorded 100 mainstream education providers – including boarding schools, FE colleges and universities – listed by the British Council as accredited. The number has dropped 13% during Covid, but only one – a boarding school – has closed down, while one other, a state college, is still operating but has closed its EFL department.

Among the 49 centres described on the Council list as ‘private language teaching organisations’, a term mostly used to describe multi-centre summer operations, just three have gone: two closed permanently and one merged with another provider.

Altogether, as of 1 September, 72 operations listed as accredited in March 2020 have disappeared from the lists, leaving 409 that were there before Covid plus four newly accredited schools, which is an overall drop of 14%. As far as we can ascertain, only half of those had definitely closed and most of those were year-round language schools.

“So far, it’s the year-round language schools that have borne the brunt of 
Covid, seeing 74% of all exits from accreditation”

So far, it’s the year-round language schools that have borne the brunt of Covid, seeing 74% of all exits from accreditation. This would come as no surprise to the UK accreditors if they inspected the financial health of the centres they accredit, but they don’t.

An analysis by the Gazette of the accounts posted at Companies House of 60 non- chain operations showed that 30% of year-round language schools had not reported a profit for four years before Covid struck. The number for summer school operations was 90% showing significant profits.

The financial returns for the chains during the same period were scarcely better: paper thin profits or small losses. As one former financial director put it, “We struggle to break even in the year-round market so we can make money from the summer schools.” This would explains why chain schools account for 43% of the UK’s Covid losses.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a massive oversupply of year- round language schools in the UK market, one which – short of a change of government and a change in the work rights legislation – was unlikely to disappear. Only by bringing our accreditation scheme in line with most of the rest of the world by inspecting the finances of providers can we hope to prevent more carnage going forward.

Covid, as is its wont, has had as its EFL victims the weak, the poor and those with underlying financial conditions. And the havoc it has wrought is not done yet.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
- Advertisment -

Latest Posts