I turn on the television news and see another interview with a struggling restaurant or bar owner, who explains how hard it will be if they have to shut down again due to Covid 19 restrictions. Commentators highlight the difficulty of limiting customer numbers or closing early. This is all true, all newsworthy and these people deserve attention and help but to me it just rubs salt in the wound. Where is the media attention to my industry or the many others that can’t operate at all in this uncertain climate? Where is the help for us?
I should explain. I am one of thousands of teachers in this country who work in English language teaching for foreign students. For us the pandemic means school closures, redundancies and no prospect of work while students do not travel to the U.K. A sector of the country’s economy worth £1.4 billion pounds according to a 2020 study has been silently wiped out by the pandemic and I hear no word of help from the government and little attention from the media. The furlough scheme helped but the replacement scheme only applies if you have some work coming in. We have tried online teaching but it just can’t replace the total immersive experience when students come to this country, stay with a local family and have lessons from native speakers. The spread of spending in families and local businesses is also lost.
There was a debate in parliament on the issue in July but it received little media attention. As far as I can tell neither of the MPs of my area, Thanet, spoke in that debate. Before another debate in September on the leisure industry, both MPs were contacted by representatives of my school and others but again they did not speak up for the industry although it contributed over £30 million to the Thanet economy in 2018. We live in the most deprived area of South East England and there aren’t many alternative employers. I had a sympathetic email from my MP but he said my school is not in his constituency.
Talk of English language schools and many people will think of summer schools springing up in church halls with temporary staff who have few or no qualifications or training. When I started teaching English as a Foreign language in 1984, soon after graduating, the schools did include many untrained teachers, standards varied widely and some schools were really not value for money but over the years the sector has become more professional, with qualifications and training now required and rigorous regular inspections by the British Council and other bodies. At the same time students’ expectations have also risen. This industry has grown year on year and, until the pandemic, had a bright future. We attract students from all over the world and even people much closer to the U.S.A, Australia or other English speaking countries often prefer to come to the U.K.
The question in my mind is, ‘Does the government care about companies that have made a huge contribution to foreign earnings and that have a long term future but no short term chance to operate except in a limited way online?’ At the moment my feeling is ‘No they don’t.’ They seem willing to let a skilled workforce and the mostly private business owners go to the wall. Many of them cannot afford to wait, pay for premises or wages for workers who can’t work. If these schools close it will take a long time for the sector to recover, many will not try and the U.K will lose business to other countries.
With the end of furlough I stand on a cliff’s edge, along with a whole sector of the British economy. Will anybody help us?