This week, we interview Greg Hoile, Chief Executive of Bell,
as the company celebrates 60 years in the language education industry.

Can you tell us a little about the origins of Bell, and how/why it was established?

The story of Bell is quite a unique one, and absolutely rooted in a belief in the power of education. Our founder, Frank Bell, was a University of Cambridge graduate, who, during his time as a prisoner of war in World War II, started a ‘secret University’ teaching languages. Reflecting on his experience after the war, he was convinced that the route to international cooperation and understanding lay in learning.

Frank Bell went on to open the first Bell language school in Cambridge in 1955, which moved to the current site three years later. Over the years, this has been developed into one of the finest campuses you can find anywhere. Bell is still owned by the Bell Educational Trust that Frank set up in 1972, to promote intercultural understanding through language education. The Trust also runs the Bell Foundation charity which works to overcome exclusion through language education. For us, it has always been about education and always will be.

What has been the key to Bell's longevity?

Bell is a special organisation. Students return time and time again and we have generations of families who have studied at Bell. Ines from Switzerland who studied with us this year is just one of the many students who came to Bell because her parents also studied here. Mecit, who studied with Bell in 1976 and visited us this year, went onto to become an English teacher himself in his home country of Turkey and both his son and daughter have since studied with us. His daughter’s dream is to study medicine, so while she was here we arranged a tour of the University of Cambridge Addenbrooke’s Hospital nearby. She now hopes to return there as an intern.

Sometimes it’s hard to put into words what makes Bell special but these stories perhaps provide a glimpse into it. Everyone at Bell goes the extra mile to inspire students, and we operate according to a set of principles called The Bell Way – these principles underpin everything we do and help us maintain the highest standards.

We also have a world-class teacher training unit that helps us ensure that the teaching and learning that takes place in Bell classrooms is second to none. We’re very proud of this, and I’m sure we continue to benefit from our standing as thought leaders in teacher training.

How has the language travel industry changed over those 60 years?

One way to give an idea of how much has changed is to look at Frank Bell's original business plan, which we still have. Back then student fees were UK£5 a week for tuition and UK£3 per week for host-family accommodation. The only choice was whether you studied for one term, two terms or three terms, and Frank gave priority to students staying for one or more academic years!

Another school was just opening up in Cambridge in the mid-fifties, and Frank seriously considered abandoning the venture as he thought there might not be enough students to go round for two schools. On reflection, he decided to go ahead on the basis of differentiation through a focus on high educational standards – a principle we have maintained throughout our history. The big changes for the industry have been around the huge increase in the size of the market and the choices available to students.

How is Bell celebrating the 60-year landmark?

Students from across our history have been visiting us this year, some who remember being taught by Frank Bell and some who studied with Bell much more recently and are now at top UK universities. Our biggest celebration is our new portfolio for 2016 that is inspired by our students.

We start by understanding why a student wants to learn English and then help them choose a core course to match their goal. Students then customise the course with Skills Workshops, Business Studies, 1-to-1 tutorials and Language in Action to create their own personal learning experience that is right for them.

New courses for Young Learners include Young Cambridge Scholars, for students who already have a good level of English and want the University of Cambridge experience, and the new English Explorer course that has 24 electives to choose from including Performing Arts, Outdoor Survival and Journalism.

As well as a new portfolio to celebrate our rich heritage, we have also launched #mybellstory to connect students from across our 60 year history.

Looking ahead, how do you see the ELT industry changing over the next 5-10 years?  

Looking ahead, I think we'll see a continuation of the trend away from generic English improvement courses to more specific content-rich programmes that meet students' demand to demonstrate what they have learnt and help them achieve their own ambitions in life. We are excited to see our new student-led portfolio in action next year.

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