English language schools face precarious future as Covid-19 hits student numbers

English language schools face precarious future as Covid-19 hits student numbers
Teacher Aine Andrews. Picture: Aine Andrews

International English language students have made headlines in recent weeks due to doubts about their visas and the quality of online classes.

Their teachers are also facing unclear futures due to the continuing pandemic; some are teaching online for six hours a day, while others are facing permanent unemployment.

This is against the background of an industry under significant pressure - a recovery plan put together by sector representatives forecasts an 80% decrease in revenue for the English language industry this year due to restrictions on international travel.

Job losses 

Five teachers were recently let go from a Limerick language school, and say there was no notice their jobs were in danger.

“Out of the blue we got an email terminating our appointment – we felt disposable, we felt like we were discarded,” said one of the teachers.

“They used the Covid blanket to say it was circumstances beyond their control so we had to be let go,” she added.

Another teacher who was let go from the same school has decided to leave the industry altogether.

“Ethically[…] I don’t want to work in that awful wheel,” he said, referring to the industry as a whole.

The school's Director of Studies declined to comment on the job losses when contacted.

Teaching online 

During the pandemic a number of language schools have adapted their operation to provide online classes where teachers are required to teach live on screen for six hours a day. Some say they have received little or no training in how to deliver classes online.

Ciarán Gallagher, Chairperson of Unite’s ELT branch, describes the state of online teaching as schools “piling up to 25 students, sometimes more, into these virtual classrooms and letting teachers and students sink or swim.” 

In compliance with visa regulations issued by the Department of Justice, students must attend 15 hours of classes per week. Language schools facilitate this by putting on two three-hour classes per day.

One teacher who works for a Dublin language school has been teaching for six hours a day over Zoom which she says is “intense” and described the planning as “time consuming.” “I’m kind of glad because I get to keep my job […] but for now it’s very stressful,” she said.

As a teacher with over six years’ experience in the field, it takes her two hours to plan for a three-hour class as all her materials must be adapted into PowerPoint presentations.

She says she received no training for teaching online and has also had to buy a new laptop and get WIFI installed in her home at her own expense.

A recovery plan forecasts an 80% decrease in revenue for the English language industry this year. File image
A recovery plan forecasts an 80% decrease in revenue for the English language industry this year. File image

Director of Cork English World language school Majellia Sheehan says she refuses to “drop academic standards to pander to a tick box that meets [the Immigration Bureau’s] requirements.” 

Teachers from the Cork school taught online for the first two weeks following restrictions and discovered it to be unsuitable for both students and teachers.

Ms Sheehan said, “Just like Graham Norton feeds off the audience in the studio, it’s the same with teachers in the classroom.” 

Ms Sheehan and her team developed a blended learning programme consisting of videos recorded by teachers including language exercises, followed by a live online tutorial with teachers.

“I know the majority of schools are doing 15 hours of live teaching online with students [per week]. Academically, it’s very unsound,” said Ms Sheehan.

“Any experienced teacher...will not want to be teaching for 15 hours online – because they know it’s not good [for students],” she added.

Reopening schools 

There are no guidelines set out for language schools regarding when they can or should reopen.

Majellia Sheehan said, “Until the travel restrictions are lifted and quarantine is lifted there’s absolutely no point in any language school opening.”

"It really stresses me out when I think about the idea of going back into the classroom,” said teacher Áine Andrews.

As it is, the classrooms are very small. The students are packed in there...They need people in there to make money.

A €1.2bn industry under pressure

The English language industry is estimated to be worth €1.2bn a year to the Irish economy.

The recovery report referenced above by the MEI (Marketing English in Ireland) and ILSG (Independent Language Schools Group recommends a €50m fund from the Irish Government to allow the industry to recover following the impact of Covid-19.

Spokesperson for the Progressive Colleges Network David Russel said, “If nothing is done to help us the sector will collapse, there’s no doubt about it.” 

Ian Brangan, who was set to open his own school before the Covid-19 restrictions said, “Part of [the problem] is a lack of coordination within the sector. There are a lot of sub groups like MEI, ILSG and PCN and unfortunately... they’re not working together.

“I think the only reasons [schools] have been able to stay open is the government furlough scheme and that they’ve been able to cocoon their businesses. But once they open up again they’re going to start incurring costs and I think there's going to be a lot of school closures over the next few months,” he added.

ILSG member Majellia Sheehan said, “We need to have some sort of guidance from some angle and it can’t just be led by [the Department of] Justice, we need to be in someone’s remit and at the moment we don’t know where we are.”

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