There have been quite a few blog posts and articles regarding the working conditions for many private English language schools in the UK and abroad. Most of the constructive feedback regarding the private EFL industry revolve around remuneration, or the lack of it. I wanted to share my experiences of working in the UK EFL industry and what made me quit my permanent job.
I should say that this blog post is not a wholly critical look at the EFL industry but rather (I hope) a balanced view of my experiences and what led up to me leaving my last employers.
I have worked in the EFL industry since 2005, teaching in South Korea, Romania and the UK. For the vast majority of time (now), I have spent my years teaching general English and young learners in the UK. Only recently have I managed to dip my toes into academic English teaching and was involved my first pre-sessional English course in the summer.
Nevertheless, I had reached a stumbling block with regards to my employment. I had worked for the same organisation since 2009 (on and off), with the last five or six years permanently. At first, I enjoyed my job and the responsibility that I had. I was able to develop the young learner curriculum and was involved with projects throughout the year. I learnt a lot and I still appreciate the experience that the organisation provided.
I received recognition twice during the preparation of the British Council and also the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspection. Both inspections take up a lot of time with all staff members involved in the preparation, writing lesson plans for the week and getting things ready. It is usually a very stressful time and most staff are reminded on the process of lesson planning and how best to divide time with planning for classes.
Anyhow, my motivation started to wane last year. During my annual appraisal, I reminded my line manager (the Director of Studies) that I hadn’t received a pay rise for (what was then) four years. He was very supportive and told me that he was in the same position. This is not what I wanted to hear. All I required was that my unhappiness was communicated to the owners of the organisation and that I would (hopefully) hear of any decision regarding my salary review. There was no news or update for a number of months, so I enquired again but was told that the business was being sold so there was no position to review any salaries in the organisation.
Meanwhile, what was really annoying was the fact that, not only permanent members of staff but also those on casual contracts, had limited hourly rates of pay. There were fewer and fewer EFL teachers wishing to work for the school and the Director of Studies was forced to approach a local company offering agency teachers (non-EFL qualified) to cover classes. I was required to devise a lesson for each cover teacher (sometimes up to three at a time) as well as my own. The quality of teaching was questionable, the pay for agency staff were greater than EFL teachers and the experience of agency staff was best suited to the state sector (primary, junior or secondary education). It felt rather disheartening to see other people coming in, being paid more, without the professionalism that other EFL teachers had. It made me question what I was doing.
Anyhow, I gave the company the benefit of the doubt and waited till my next salary review. The British Council inspection was a success and my role and contribution was mentioned in the report and this was high-lighted in the annual appraisal. I said, “As I have contributed to the organisation and supported the most recent inspection, I think it only fair that my salary is reviewed”. Again, this request was declined and it went no further than the Director of Studies. So, I decided to take drastic action.
I approached both directors of the organisation with information regarding the fees of all young learners charged for the last five years and any increase. Armed with this knowledge, I calculated what my salary would be if it matched the increase in fees that young learners were charged. They were surprised and didn’t know what to say – requiring a few days to process this. I was called into the office and told that they couldn’t afford to review my salary. I told them that if they couldn’t match my salary, then they could consider offering a few more extra days paid holiday. This was declined and then the big reason which made me reconsider what I had been doing.
One of the directors then told me that I had a salary increase but it wouldn’t seem like a pay increase as they were contributing to my private pension. I told them that it was a legal requirement and that they wouldn’t do it had they not been forced to by law. And the whole idea this being a pay increase was absurd. If you look at your take home pay, it was decreasing as I had to contribute more and more to a private pension. You look at HMRC and on my P60, I would be earning less. I thought why am I putting so much effort into trying to get my salary reviewed or increasing my holiday entitlement when the directors don’t wish to accommodate anything?
Soon afterwards, I handed in my notice and then managed to secure summer employment with a local University and the rest is history. I am now gaining more experience teaching academic English and was most recently involved in a pre-sessional programme during the summer months, preparing students for their post-graduate studies at the University. It is incredibly rewarding, professional and a very supportive environment.
So, what should the EFL industry in the UK try to do better? Well the industry must reward teachers for their preparation time, not just the in-class hours. With the national minimum salary increasing year on year, the gap between menial jobs and professional English teaching careers is narrowing. There was discussion that the living wage would soon be £10 or more. Surely the rate of hourly pay be nearer £25-30 in the private EFL industry?
They should also review the rates of pay for teachers who have committed a lot of their working career to this profession. More and more EFL professionals have a lot more experience and qualifications (DELTA or equivalent), but the opportunities are not commensurate to those accreditations gained. And, there needs to be a nationwide union to support EFL teachers who need help rather than being disbanded during the quieter periods of the year with their language schools.
I do hope that the EFL industry in the UK evolves and that teachers are rewarded and recognised for their contribution.
Coming from an Asian background, I find it hard to sympathize when British people moan about not being paid enough. Although I was raised in the UK, I remember as a child some of my more traditionally-minded relatives telling me that money is hard to earn and in the home country of my ancestors, poor people would have to toil from dawn to dusk and have little to show for it. Compared to eastern countries, wages in the UK are very high. A British company paying their staff £10+ an hour simply wouldn’t be able to compete with those in countries like China or India. That’s why there is so much resistance to calls for higher pay. In 2009, I lost my job in the UK to a bunch of Indian call centre workers and I was paid £6.75 an hour. Had my colleagues and I been willing to work for £5 an hour then, maybe I would still be working in the UK today. Surely low wages are good if it means that more people can be in work? A high minimum wage is surely of no use to those who are unemployed. If there was no welfare state in the UK and the choice was between working for peanuts and not earning anything at all, I wonder if British workers would still demand as much as they do.
Kim, you do make a good point regarding the welfare state in the UK but the increased pressure and responsibilities on employees with little to no improvement in remuneration is no excuse. With the cost of goods and services rising and your salary remaining stagnant does not benefit anyone. Employees, particularly those teachers who have dedicated their working career to the teaching profession, should be treated with respect and supported.
I hate to break it to you Kim, but those call centers would have been moved to India whether you work for £7 or £5. Facilities, utilities, onboarding etc are all a million times cheaper in India.
As for wages, to be competitive with Indian wages your pay would be so low that you wouldn’t be able to live in the UK on it anyway!
I am unsure how much Martin was being paid, but I worked at the same school and I can tell you that matters are so bad that I ended up getting a higher paid job teaching English online for a Chinese company.
As for it being “better” for a country if there is no minimum wage. I would be interested in hearing what you think makes countries like the UK wealthy. I think you will find that it is that we get paid (therefore taxed) a very decent amount to provide work (usually service related). People competing with how little they would work for would end up in the country losing out on money due to lower tax income/brain drain/drop in quality etc
My point is that if workers in India are willing to work for $ x, why aren’t British workers willing to take the same amount? Don’t tell me it is because of high costs. In the Victorian era, the cost of everything was measured in shillings and half shillings. But when workers and unions demand more pay, companies are forced to put up prices. The only reason why prices in Asian countries haven’t gone up as much as that in western countries is because the trade union movement is weak or non-existent in Asia. 200 years ago, everything was cheap everywhere in the world. But whilst things are still cheap in Asia, they have become much more expensive in western countries and I believe this is due to powerful unions demanding high wages and then going on strike when they don’t get their way. £5 is still too much, if wages went right down to £2 or £1 an hour, the UK might then be able to compete with Asian countries.
Countries like the UK are wealthy due to technological industries. Machines are a hundred time more expensive than wheat or rice. If you are an exporter of the former, of course you’ll make more than an exporter of the latter.
First of all, England doesn’t mainly export “machines” anymore.. that is mainly done in Asia (China, Korea, Japan, etc). We are mainly a “service industry” which is seen as even more lucrative than a technology manufacturing industry. Also, all the “unions” and higher wages etc are all seen as progress which has taken hundreds of years to reach. I was attempting to explain to you how detrimental it would be for us to go against that when all the other countries in the world are looking to replicate it?!
And no matter how low wages go, aspects like land, high-level services (many of which are needed to keep the country running) will still remain expensive.. meaning all that would be achieved by slashing wages is sinking people into poverty.. do you think it is a coincidence that the average salary of a Chinese citizen has sky rocketed in the last 50 years; with that growth DIRECTLY correlated to the number of millions of people lifted out of poverty in the country?
Well, I strongly believe that what you see as “progress” was directly responsible for my being made redundant in 2009. My company simply couldn’t afford to pay British wages to so many people. I would prefer to remain in work, gaining experience, gaining skills and being paid something, however little, than to be out of work and earning nothing. You might say that there is a welfare state in the UK, but what if there wasn’t? People would then be desperate to work for anything they could get because something is always better than nothing.
The business world is a ruthless place. The company that can keep their costs and prices low will thrive and the one that can’t will collapse, it’s as simple as that. The less people are willing to work for, the less the company is able to charge for its products. Low prices generate higher sales volumes. In the long term, this translates into stability for the company and job security for its workers. That surely can’t be a bad thing.
Not sure where you got your information about China from. Like other Asian countries, poverty is still very much in existence, if you look in the right places. Go to any major city and you’ll see plenty of beggars and homeless people. Go to any rural agricultural town or village and you’ll see how poor the people are, how hard they work and how little they earn for their trouble. As a university professor in China, I’m earning less than £900 a month and my Chinese colleagues are on a fraction of that.
I don’t believe in lifting people out of poverty for the sake of it. If someone wants a higher salary, they need to earn it. Get educated, get qualified, gain valuable skills and expertise, take on a job with more responsibility then we can talk. But if you left school with no qualifications, have no skills and no experience, why should you get a high salary?
I’ve had this discussion with people countless times. Someone who only knows the system in the UK and has never seen what poor people in developing countries have to do to earn what little money they have will never understand my viewpoint. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.