The Great Brexit Balls Up for ELT

BREXIT

Across the UK, English schools are standing empty, and teachers are being made redundant in increasing numbers.  Host families are genuinely worried about keeping up with their mortgages, and many associated industries are also feeling the pinch. Having taken so long to commit to leaving the European Union, Britain has placed itself in a precarious economic position. One of the most striking places where this situation has been felt is in schools where English is taught as a foreign language. Probably the most well established and thriving of British exports, our language, seems to have become a much less desirable commodity of late. The Great Brexit Balls Up is starting to take its first casualties.

International Exchange

There’s no doubt that English will remain a highly sought-after skill long after the fuss of the current political situation has died down.  The academic sphere and the business world still largely hinge upon this linguistic meeting point, which allows so many different nationalities to work together effectively.

However, the summer and autumn of 2019 will long be remembered as the period when the world of EFL teaching was radically affected by Britain’s political movements. There’s every chance this year will shape the English teaching world and its associated industries for some time to come.

We will likely see the departure of some well-established names by the end of this year. Thriving businesses, generally full of customers from every corner of the globe, are suddenly struggling to survive.  Schools whose corridors were usually bustling with activity stand eerily quiet with just a handful of students spread around an ever-decreasing number of ashen-faced, worried-looking teachers.

Steve Johnson from Interactive English in Brighton stated, “We have noticed a significant drop in applications for our school, prospective students do not know where they will stand if they arrive in the country before the UK exits the EU. There is a real worry that they will be deported for not having the correct immigration documents.” 

A Blast From The Past

For as long as we can remember, one of our country’s most faithful exports, our language has been a stalwart of the British economy.  As quintessential as a cup of tea, a residential visit to the UK is commonly viewed as a pre-requisite on the road to mastery of the English language.  Most foreign learners who want to become proficient speakers of the language consider spending time here as a critical part of their studies. However, dramatically affected by the recent machinations of our government, this most reliable of British products appears to be significantly less profitable.

Associated Industries

And it’s not only the teachers. Receptionists stand idle, waiting for the phone to ring or for the odd email to land with a tentative inquiry. The only phone calls they tend to receive at the moment are from anxious host families concerned about their empty spare rooms and the source of next month’s mortgage payments. Directors of Studies are visibly concerned, and homes are being re-mortgaged, even as we go to press.  Who would have thought that Britain’s political status would reach so far into the pockets of home-owners so quickly?

Tour companies who used to run dozens of bus trips a day visiting Oxford, Cambridge, London, Bath and Stonehenge, are also at risk of going out of business. Their offices are hauntingly quiet, and the tour guides are twiddling their thumbs nervously at home, even waiting for the phone to go. A once-popular tour operator from Brighton was quoted as saying, “This is a worrying time.”

Manrico Oliveri from Discovery Tours said, “Students have either delayed or canceled their plans to come to the UK due to all the uncertainty.”

Redundancies are being made where only a year ago, staff were being taken on. Pubs and restaurants, cafés, and nightclubs are also taking a hit. One of the longest standing club nights in Brighton, catering specifically for foreign visitors, has been dramatically hit by falling numbers and may yet have to close. As residential course subscriptions have fallen off drastically, the impact is being felt by a diverse range of stakeholders.

The Olympics Won

Another noteworthy summer for the English teaching industry was in 2012 when the massive number of visitors pouring into the country for the Olympics meant the prices of flights and accommodation suddenly went through the roof. This, in turn, meant that thousands of students were put off traveling to the UK.  Thankfully, this was only for a short month, although possibly the longest four weeks ever for many of the host families and schools who counted on that revenue to get by.

Fewer Homes Does not Mean Homeless

The summer season is always the peak time for foreign visitors, and sometimes English schools struggle to find enough beds for everyone.  Reliable host families are often inundated with calls from stressed-out Accommodation Officers who are desperate to place their students. That year of 2012 was noticeably different, and some hosts can still remember it well.  A popular family who used to welcome four visitors at a time said: “It was a critical time for us, and we nearly lost our house.”

This current period of uncertainty looks far more worrying for those dependent on foreign expenditure, there are still a few weeks before the government is due to reconvene, and it’s decidedly unclear as to what is going to happen after that.

In a manner that is typical of the famous stiff upper lip, some accommodating host families are doing their best to play down the genuine risk under which their homes currently stand.  Chris Roche, who usually welcomes guests studying here in the UK, confessed: “I’m slightly panicking, I’m desperately short of students, and I depend on them to help pay my mortgage.”

No Way Home

What’s most surprising about the current drop-off in visitors to the UK is that it doesn’t just seem to be affecting those who would be arriving from the EU. Visits from nationalities outside the EU also seem to be in decline, and it’s probably just the period of uncertainty that’s affecting their decisions to travel at this time.

Many European citizens have genuine concerns about finding themselves stranded in the UK if their ID cards were to suddenly become insufficient for travel. The threat of unexpected increases in prices and scares about food supplies, visas, medical care, and all sorts of unexpected causes abound.

Although much of this stems from unsubstantiated fears, it’s hardly surprising given the coverage by a lot of foreign media.  As just one example clearly illustrates, reporting of Brexit in Spain gives the impression that the UK risks becoming a concentration camp for foreign visitors.  Food shortages are predicted, and all manner of horror stories are condensed into the attention-grabbing headlines that can be found on the newsstands. Of course, we hope nothing could be further from the truth, but the powerful impression left by Alfonso Cuarón’s hard-hitting Children of Men has probably left traces of doubt for many, especially those who are yet to visit our mostly friendly and welcoming country. 

A Great British Betrayal?

For many, many decades, the prevailing view of the British people worldwide was one of faithful reliability.  A bastion of the business world upon whom anyone could count, Britain used to be regarded, and still is by many, as a brand as trustworthy as a German or Japanese car.  The current sense of betrayal felt by many across the continent is probably also subtly at play when European nationals are considering improving their language skills. Many think that they are being abandoned by the UK, even if they have their doubts about the European project as a whole and understand the desire for national sovereignty. 

Greater political autonomy is something that many European nations yearn for, and a considerable number of citizens are currently feeling a sense of jealousy about the UK’s anticipated departure. It’s as if they’re understandably reluctant to be the last one left at the party when the music is over, to whom falls the dreaded responsibility of tidying up after everyone else has gone home.

Blocked by the British Council

Most English schools very highly value the accreditation offered by the British Council.  There are a large number of foreign agents who will only work with schools that have been approved by the British Council, an association whose logo is commonly viewed as an internationally recognized stamp of approval.  As with other regulatory bodies which seek to establish and maintain high standards within their given sector, the support they provide can also become suffocating when their members need to adapt rapidly to market fluctuations. 

Currently, the British Council stands in the way of the schools they represent who have to find ways to survive, given the changing demands of their global audience. Foreign customers are increasingly turning to their computers as a significantly cheaper way to learn English.  Unfortunately, English schools registered with the British Council are hampered in their efforts as they seek to introduce online alternatives, regulations slowing their progress as they move towards their provision.

Disruptive Technology

The fact that virtual classroom software now permits people from around the world to communicate so effectively across borders means that the internet is suddenly a force to be reckoned with in the English teaching world.  High-quality video calls where students can work directly with teachers and other students of every kind, no matter their location, can offer English lessons with native speakers at a fraction of the cost. Online teaching resources can be found everywhere, and competition is fierce. The low-cost study aids being offered to students is driving down the wages for teachers. 

Sudden shifts in the global economy mean that a small change in currency value can make a residential visit to the UK prohibitively expensive. Marry the financial concerns with underlying feelings of resentment towards the Great Brexit Balls Up, and we may have an explanation for the massive threat to English schools being felt at this very moment. 

One online school, Globalised English, seems to be adapting very well to the changes, reports a considerable increase in foreign demand for their business.  Now signing contracts with secondary schools from around the world, they are seeing huge increases in revenue and even seem concerned about whether or not they will be able to satisfy the demand, mostly in respect to finding teachers capable of switching to the online alternative.

Adapting To Add

In these times of ADD (attention deficit disorder), it’s no simple task to give online students the sense of immediacy and excitement that will keep them glued to their screens.  Often sitting alone in a room with distractions on every side, it’s by no means a given that a teacher can hold their attention. New approaches must be adopted to create vital and engaging lessons that keep students wholeheartedly involved.  There’s little doubt that their intrinsic desire to learn the language should be enough, but it’s so easy for people to be distracted from the task at hand when incoming messages, popups, texts, and calls all seek to break the concentration required for a compelling study.

The quality that makes an online English teacher successful is a relaxed and yet subtle form of urgency.  When people use their screens for such a wide range of visually captivating entertainment, teachers find themselves competing with incredibly dynamic, high-budget content.  The one thing they can provide which films and videos can never contend with is the immediacy of online interaction and human connection. Video games provide this in spades, but they lack the quality of content necessary for someone serious about speaking English, although this may yet come to change in the future.

One Eye On The Future

As the disruption of whole industries appear likely for the foreseeable future, those connected with teaching English as a foreign language may be forced to see this Great Brexit Balls Up as the impetus for change as the sands shift beneath them.  This once reliable business will almost certainly survive this bump in the road, indeed the industry as a whole. However, small businesses unable to resist weeks or months of lost revenue as they harbor empty classrooms, bedrooms, tour buses, and nightclubs, may have to look to alternative strategies to cope with the ongoing changes to world markets.