||As you can imagine, attracting students has been difficult, as agents are, I believe, the best way to attract and recruit students. We're finding it difficult to locate potential agents for the school," says Charisse Nel, Director of new school, Go! English in Cape Town, South Africa.
Nel underlines one of the biggest challenges for new schools in the industry: establishing strong agency networks and starting the ball rolling in terms of student recruitment. All those new directors of language schools who spoke to Language Travel Magazine attest that they want to work with agents. It can, however, be difficult to get in contact with them. Christine Goodwin, an ex-teacher in the UK who is in the process of setting up The English School (Northumbria) in the northeast of England, observes, "It is very difficult to get in touch with agents. Other language schools are very protective and secretive and the British Council will not give out information to non-accredited schools."
This then, is one of the biggest problems, once a new school is established. But just getting the school up and running can involve overcoming considerable other problems. Legal and logistical issues vary according to country, and in Australia, the hurdles to overcome are significant. Bill Adler, Chief Executive of Imagine Education in Southport, Queensland, set up his company with a partner in 2003. Given that they actually built their English language college and two early learning centres from scratch, Adler relates that he spent the first 12 months as "a property developer", gaining necessary regulatory approvals for the new buildings. "We set up a temporary office and classroom in a nearby office park and taught some English," says Adler, previously head of a senior school, who met his business partner during his MBA course. "We did educational consulting to pay the bills and property development/project management of our new site."
Once the buildings were finished and all the required approvals were gained, Adler commenced on dealing with the "multi-layered government regulation" needed to operate early learning centres and a language school in April 2005. The language school proved to be more problematic than the early learning centres, which received approval before the buildings opened. For the school, firstly the National ELT Accreditation Scheme (Neas) national regulator for the sector had to check the school complied with the appropriate Esos Act and national code. Then, state regulation had to be sought from the Office of Non-State Schooling in Queensland. (New South Wales delegates this reponsibility to Neas, but not so in other states.)
Lastly, the federal government Department of Education Science and Training (Dest) also had to give its approval before the school could start operations.
"Finally, on January 17 2006 we gained final approval, 10 months after our buildings were ready," says Adler. "All the while we had the staff and mortgage to pay."
Adler observes that while Neas accreditation is necessary in Australia to be able to receive students entering the country on a student visa (anyone staying for more than 12 weeks) and this is important, he feels two levels of government compliance would suffice. Australia is one of the few countries that currently ties student visa issuance to the accreditation status of an English language school.
In Malta, it is illegal to operate without a licence issued by the government's EFL Monitoring Board, but there are no specific student visas issued. Daren Hammett, Director of MLS Malta, which was set up in 2004, relates, "To apply for a language licence you need several approvals, such as from the Malta Planning Authority, the Malta Tourism Authority and the Education Department. It wasn't very difficult but it took time."
In New Zealand too, accreditation by the New Zealand Qualications Authority (NZQA) is compulsory, although some schools do set up without the appropriate licence. Angela Oliver at English New Zealand relates that such institutions face being shut down if caught or being forced to confirm to NZQA standards. "To start a school [legally] from scratch in New Zealand, the main difficulty would be affording a consultant who can prepare all the paperwork needed [by NZQA]," she says explaining that consultants are typically employed by those new to the industry. "Anecdotally, I have heard that it can cost up to NZ$200,000 (US$128,800) to set up a school these days. A large percentage of that would be consultant's fees."
In the UK, schools must fulfil certain legal conditions to be able to be listed on the Home Office Register and receive students studying on a student visa this is one step away from tying student visa issuance to accreditation (see page 6). As in Australia, schools can still operate without official sanction in the UK, but can only teach those entering the country without a student visa.
Notwithstanding the operational and legal requirements in a given country, starting a language school is also a considerable professional challenge, and those embarking on such a venture tend to have already worked in the sector. This was the case for all of those surveyed for this article, including Matthieu Chaigne, owner of École Interculturelle de Français pour Étrangers (EIFE) in Lyon, France. He too relates that the path towards owning and operating a language school was fraught with difficulty. "I knew all about planning lessons and good teachers, as well as the needs of students, but for the rest, I knew nothing," he says of his 18-month-old school. "[Nothing about] funding, learning about French law, security rules, delays, marketing, housing problems, the Internet, and most of all, French bureaucracy."
Given the problems associated with starting up a language school, it is amazing that any do take off each year, and important that they are able to, to keep the industry fresh, dynamic and evolving. Most people involved in setting up a school seem to have a real vision of a quality language school with a personal touch. "I wanted to change the difficult conditions that teachers work under, with precarious contracts, small salaries, etc," says Chaigne. "Also, having been in the same situation as a foreigner in a country where you know nothing, I wasn't satisfied with the welcome that foreign students were given in France, from all aspects first contact, housing, cultural difficulties, practical problems, etc."
Andrew Brown of ABC Education in Oxford, UK, says his motivations for starting a school with his wife in 2004, after 15 years in the business, were "to create something that was new, something of high quality that we could be proud of". He elaborates, "Working for ourselves allowed us to focus on those things that we think are important in a business, such as providing a great experience for the students, not on budgets set by someone else."
Another new British enterprise, Bishopstrow College in Warminster, set up by Fran Henson, opens in July. She says her experience of teaching eight-to-18 year olds and preparing them for academic study in the UK led her to believe there was a gap in the market for targeted individual tuition. "Our aim is to provide the highest possible standard of teaching and care within a supportive residential environment," she says of her "incubator" approach to teaching. "I was acutely aware of some of the difficulties faced [by students] in perfecting English skills, overcoming gaps between curriculums and adjusting to living away from home in a foreign country."
New schools are aware that to break into the market, they need to have a point of difference and/or exceptionally high quality to win over agents, as well as personal contacts if possible. Adler states, "In general, agents are not keen on new schools unless you have something no one else can give them. We have a pretty unique situation in that we have early learning centres on campus, this gives us a ready-made Australian community for the foreign students to belong to and also makes it easier for young families wishing to study English." He adds, "I have been in the industry for some time so I am known to agents, which helps."
Once the unique selling points of a new school are established, the next crucial step is working with agents, and reputation does help. However, in Brown's case, he says he didn't work with agents known to him previously "as this would not have been professional with regard to our previous employer" and the school is in the same location. Like other start-ups, his promotional work pivoted around gaining word-of-mouth recommendation from students and agencies, the Internet and attending workshops. Henson says she gained advice and support from two or three agents and acknowledges, "I now need to widen out the field of contacts and build additional relationships with agents on a worldwide basis."
The good news for start-up schools is that agencies report that they are happy to consider working with them. Julia Grechishnikova of Millennium Ltd. in Russia says, "We prefer to work with our old partners but certainly we would not refuse an interesting offer." She adds that she would want to meet someone from a new school prior to starting a business relationship with them. Igor Lapata of Sputnik agency, also in Russia, and Aurélien Laferrère of Séjours Abroad in France, note that a visit to the school would pave the way for a business relationship. Lapata says, "If [a visit] is difficult or impossible then a meeting would certainly be of use. When you know the person in charge of a school you feel more certain about that school, it's a psychological effect." He adds that they receive so many introductory emails from schools that these are usually considered spam. Ernest Lau at Wise Education Services in Hong Kong, however, says emails are welcomed at his agency, but knowing a school representative first increases the chances of collaboration. New schools should take note that once they can reach agencies ideally face-to-face there is every chance that a working relationship may ensue. And agencies should understand the difficulties intrinsic in setting up a language school and understand that new schools can be a breath of fresh air in the industry and offer an education and experience based on high quality standards and personal vision. As usual, it is personal experience that counts above all else.
How does a new school get accredited?
One of the problems faced by those starting up a new school is that it can be difficult to gain accreditation and therefore gain access to promotional networks and links to agencies. Even in Australia, where schools are accredited from day one (initially as part of a 12-month guided candidacy scheme run by Neas), new schools are able to join English Australia but restricted from promotional advantages, such as attending the EA Agent's Workshop, for the first year.
Understandably, language school associations like to have a qualitative criteria for membership, so that they can feel assured that all members uphold a certain level of standards and offer a good quality experience.
However, it creates difficulties for many schools in their first year, although, as Christine Goodwin of The English School (Northumbria) points out, there are some options available in the UK, such as attending the Alphe Workshop or applying to the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS) for accreditation. ABLS normally requires a track record of two years in the business, but it will inspect newer operations if the owner has industry experience, based on a committee decision.
Goodwin relates, "When I first started my research, a school had to operate for two years before it could apply for [British Council] accreditation and since the advent of the Home Office Register, this has been reduced to one year. Even though this is a great improvement, I still feel that the practice is discriminatory against new start-ups." She notes that access to English UK services is only available to schools accredited by the British Council.