The purpose of a language school

This year has given me a lot to think about with regards to Cambridge English, the language school I help run. We have been forced to make a lot of changes, closing one location, rearranging the schedule to deal with staff shortages, developing the curriculum to move towards where we want the school to be.

I have also had the chance to do a lot of teaching during the last six months, averaging around 60 contact hours a week and coming very close to burning out.

Brainstorming with other staff has given me some broad principles to follow in the future, and interestingly shows where we went wrong in the past. Some of our previous goals were in fact counter-productive and were holding us back. It has also thrown out some dilemmas that I have not completely resolved yet.

Big or small?

This is probably the first question school owners need to answer. Do you want to be a big school with multiple locations and a large staff, or a small school? We used to want to be big, but it is a horrendous amount of work to grow beyond a couple of teachers, and I am not sure that it is possible to do so without taking a considerable hit in terms of character and quality. Multiple locations means doubling up on resources, something that is almost prohibitively expensive for us (we have thousands of readers and a lot of games and toys). Moving things to where they need to be and keeping track of things is a huge headache that doesn’t exist when you are based in one place.

So, I give up. I am never going to be the CEO of a big company. My talents and temperament don’t seem to be a good fit with that. Instead, I will see how far we can take things on a more manageable scale.

Cheap or expensive?

This is another vital question, one that has become a bit of a no-brainer for us. I believe there is no future for small schools attempting to compete on price. I even feel that charging average fees is a losing proposition for us. Instead, we are going to attempt to become a boutique school, a luxury good in economic terms. As long as your market is large enough (we are in Sendai, a medium-sized city), there should be plenty of potential customers for whom quality is more important than price.

Of course, if you want to charge more, you also have to deliver results. Your classes must be purposeful and show students or their parents how they are helping them. Your school should be attractive, clean, and well-presented. You should have an effective curriculum and decent staff. Effective communication with students and/or parents is also essential.

Provided you actually deliver these things, charging more than other schools around you can be an effective marketing technique. For certain potential customers, higher prices are likely to catch their attention. Why is that school more expensive? In a lot of cases, higher prices will give an image of higher quality.

We have found that each time we raise our prices, demand also rises. Take private lessons for adults: we started at the ridiculously low price point of 8,000 a month for four classes, then raised it to 12,000, then doubled it to 24,000. Each time we raised the price, we got a wave of new enquiries.

Inclusive or exclusive?

This is something I have real trouble with. Our school has always tried to accommodate all students, regardless of their ability or temperament. We have several students with mental or emotional disabilities, and most of them have private classes at group rates because that is the most effective way to meet their needs and the needs of other students.

However, in line with the drive for quality above, I am tempted to screen students entering our school. Often when students come for trial lessons, it is very easy to tell if they are actually interested in English or not. It is also fairly easy to predict how involved their parents are likely to be, or how interested they are in the school.

Motivated students with supportive parents are easy to teach and learn quickly. This leads to a virtuous circle of achievement, where the students learn more, get more satisfaction, and are driven to learn even more.

If you eliminate the disinterested, the disruptive, the disturbed, and the less able, classes will go more smoothly and both students and teachers will enjoy them more. Students are more likely to succeed in this case, and success leads to very effective word of mouth marketing. If you also get a reputation for being selective, then that can increase interest in your school, as people always want things they can’t have.

However, is this fair? As a teacher, I feel a duty to society. If we only take students that can afford to pay elevated fees, we are depriving poorer, possibly equally motivated and able students, of the chance to study with us. If we turn away students with behavioural, emotional, or educational problems, we are discriminating against them as well. Don’t all students have the right to have access to what we can offer them?

Of course, we are a business, not a public school. We can set any policy we like, take or turn away any customer, and set fees at any level.

One way to square this circle is to provide options to accommodate different students. We currently have half a dozen students who are studying for free, because their family circumstances due to divorce, unemployment, or the after effects of the earthquake means that they would not have been able to remain with us as paying students. We also have students who receive private lessons for the price of group ones because they are autistic and do not work well with others: we didn’t feel it was fair to charge them more because of their disability. Perhaps we can extend this model into the future, providing academic scholarships for promising students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the fees and continuing to cater to non-standard students.

 So, what is the purpose of a private language school?

Is it solely a profit-making enterprise or is there some obligation to serve the community? How do you address these three issues? I would be very interested to hear from other owners and teachers in the comments below.

1 Oct 2011, 5:35am
by Mark Dowson


Interesting essay Ben. My thoughts, with zero teaching experience, for what they are worth.

I think single location high margin is a better model for small business not to kill yourself. I think to have a network, you need volume and will make thin margin on royalty / licence fee from each, effectively a franchise model. It works for McDonalds, they don’t manage every restaurant from centre.

You would then be a manager / CEO, which is a different role. You are presumably one of the biggest assets to your brand while teaching. If you can make this model make a good living for you and your family / partners it sounds good to me.

In terms of inclusivity, I think you hit the nail on the head with the virtuous circle stuff, and it is complementary to the luxury good strategy. You are running a business to feed your family and pay your rent, not as a philanthropic exercise. I don’t think it should cause you to think this is a less worthy way to make a living, there are certainly many professions with a far less positive impact on society as well. You don’t need to wear a hair shirt too.

Scholarships for able children from poor backgrounds also good idea, would local businesses / community groups sponsor places too, especially if you have community involvement in some way? Lots of public schools in England support Community in some practical (often cheap) way, partly to justify maintaining charitable status. When all is said and done, you can always take the view I do, that if I earns what I can now What’s left can go to charity when I’m dead, so it will go to good causes eventually!

Another thought re ethical dilemmas – do you have a charter / mission statement for your business? Sounds wanky corporate but might help. If you can create a set of principles you are happy with, then you can objectively measure decisions against them for consistency. Should make choices subsequently easier, and keep branding consistent with actions, also virtuous. Then your integrity is maintained by being consistent to your charter, and integrity will give you focus and consistent brand image.

Thanks Mark! Really appreciate the comment. It’s good to have a non-teacher joining the discussion -one of the problems with small language schools is that they are almost always started by teachers, who may or may not have the business acumen to go with their teaching experience.

I may be hitting you up for further advice in the future!


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