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The Precarious Finances of ESL Schools

September 29, 2005

I have seldom met an ESL teacher who believed his or her pay was adequate.

Hello again.

With regards to fairly compensating ESL employees, you probably need to have run your own language to school to understand just how tight the financial situation usually is. It’s fine on paper. You can work out the student numbers per class you need to break even and then you can project the profit that accrues from each additional student until the maximum number per group is reached. The trouble is it seldom goes to plan. You decide to run an uneconomic class because you don’t want to disappoint the students, and in any case, if you didn’t run the class, the teachers would have to be paid anyway.

Then a couple of students drop out of borderline groups and you find yourself running several loss-makers. You hope you’ll make up the shortfall with the next intake. Sometimes you do. Often you don’t. There are good years, there are bad years. It sounds as if it’s harder for the individual school than the chain because at least a school in a group that is less profitable can be offset against by one that is more so. Yet recently we seen the collapse of a chain in Spain and schools in China have been closing their doors, often leaving teachers stranded.

So when teachers feel badly done by, they do not see the overall picture. Is there a way off this financial cliff edge? Frankly, I don’t think there is. The world of ELT is highly dynamic and the trends are very volatile. To run a school as a successful business you probably need other strings to your bow. If you don’t already organize language stays in Anglophone countries, then this is one obvious area to branch into. It will help support your students’ learning if they can have a spell mixing with native speakers and you can look for profit in commissions and perhaps on travel. Another possibility is to offer translation and interpreting to local businesses. Your local Chamber of Commerce is a good basis for making contacts.

I’m sure readers would be interested to hear how your school stays afloat in difficult times.

Until next time,


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  1. irene Says:

    Back again. I couldn´t believe my eyes when reading the comment. In a way I felt relieved that the same is happening all over the world and in developed countries.
    We have been running a small language School for about 23 years and have seen many changes and lived quite drmatic moments. In the year 2002 our country went through a serious economic crisis that we have started to overcome -even though the consequences are still felt- and we tried to survive that moment. It was really hard so we decided not to dismiss any of our local teachers as it could have been chaotic for them and their families but not to take on any foreign teachers for at least 2 years. It worked well. We just survived but we managed to be still here. Many Schools and small business have closed their doors and the situation was dramatic and depressing.
    Our School just works on the word of mouth that makes things harder for us. It is really expensive to advertise in any local newspaper. Needless to say the radio or television, simply unaffordable.
    We tried to implement new programmes of study and try to be different from the rest of Language Schools in our city and the country. It worked. It obviously took time for the students to realise that there´s a place that can be similar to any International School abroad but we are trying to make it work.
    On the other hand, hiring staff from abroad has always been hard for us as they need to be paid a high salary to make ends meet in our country. Fortunately, all of them have been more than understanding and are satisfied with the pay and the position.
    One of the things commented is to have a programme for students to travel abroad. We had it. Thing was that with the economic crisis it has become unaffordable for almost every one so it couldn´t work further.
    Nowadays we are thinking of organising Spanish classes for foreign students. Unbelievable as it may seem there are no Schools of Spanish in our country so we have decided to promote that abroad.
    We have already received a proposal from an Indian School to be our agents there. We are delighted because that means offering and organising new activities with our own students of English and those who decide to come and learn Spanish. On the other hand, fees are really low for the International market(20 hours a week for $100 p/week) but quite good for us.
    Another thing we have decided to do is to work 12 months a year instead of 10. People in our country love going on holiday during the summer but there are those who must stay due to their jobs... so there we are, working with those who have no way out but to stay despite the sweltering weather!
    That´s what we are about now. I would really like to read other comments and to know what other Schools are doing to make things work.

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