Language schools across Europe are dealing with the pandemic with varying degrees of success. A lot of it comes down to how governments are helping – or not helping – them.
Books piled up on the shelves, almost covered in dust after months of closure. Pictures of the Big Ben on the walls, of happy Italian students travelling around the United Kingdom, long gone memories that seem so distant now.
Leila Del Fabro is opening back her English school in northern Italy after more than 3 months because of the pandemic, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to stay open. “I’ve lost almost 80% of my income and I haven’t received any proper help from the government.”
According to a research by the World Bank in April 2020 almost 94% of the world’s learners were out of school, a phenomenon that could lead to a dramatic increase in learning poverty. Learning poverty is defined as the percentage of 10-year-old children who cannot read and understand a simple story.
If on the one hand, the educational crisis in traditional classrooms has been widely investigated, very little has been said about private adult learning businesses, like language schools: a sector that heavily relies on tourism and travelling. For example, the British Council has estimated that language schools across the UK have lost 80% of their revenue since March 2020.
And if governments all around Europe have been trying to help the tourism industry to stay afloat, what has been done for language schools and their workers?
Confusing legislation around language schools
“Each country is trying to somehow help this sector, except for Italy. I basically do not exist for the government”, says Leila Del Fabro. She opened the BA Language Link in 2016 in Busto Arsizio, a city in northern Italy, to teach English.
“This school is the product of years of hard work, it’s a very small business and all the money I’ve invested is mine, so I don’t have a big corporation supporting me.”
Therefore, with the school being closed for 3 months, all the study trips, workshops and courses cancelled, Del Fabro has lost almost 80% of her income. The real issue, however, is the fact that the legislation around language schools in Italy is confusing, she claims.
If summer doesn’t happen, the whole year doesn’t happen.
“We have been considered as real schools, so we had to stay closed for months, but then we haven’t received the same help that other schools get. No financial aid with paying the rent, no discount in taxes and especially no furlough scheme. Having a language school in Italy is like living in the Wild West: you are left alone and behind”.
Del Fabro’s business has only received a one-off contribution from the government as a private company, but this is nowhere near to what she needs to keep the business running.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even want to think about the future, because I have no idea how to stay open,” the teacher admits. So now she hopes to be able to organise study trips during the summer.
Summer plans are crucial
“It is a simple principle: if summer doesn’t happen, the whole year doesn’t happen,” says Nicky Partridge, the manager of the Pear Tree language school in Cardiff, Wales.
Partridge agrees with Del Fabro when it comes to summer plans.
“The past 12 months have been a real economic disaster and we are still far from solving the situation,” adds Partridge thinking back at all the workshops, courses, and classes that she had to cancel.“I’ve lost 76% of all my income this year and I had to make some staff redundant.”
All around Europe language schools are suffering, but what changes is the way governments support, or fail, these educational businesses.
The world as we know it is gone. People will travel less, so we need to turn this difficulty into an opportunity.
Whilst Del Fabro has only received one-off contributions, Partridge can rely on Cardiff Council and the central government to pay both the rent and her staff. “I think the government is doing all they can, and the furlough scheme is a huge help, because it pays for 80% of the staff’s wage. But of course the situation is still severe,” Partridge adds.
The main problem is the loss of students. “Before the pandemic we had around 2 000 students each year and now we have 17 instead of 120,” claims Eleri Maitland who owns the French in Normandy school, which offers French classes in Rouen.
Financial support is not a long-term solution
France, however, is a peculiar case because many language schools in the country have come together in the Groupement FLE body to ask the government to recognise that the sector has been greatly affected by the pandemic.
“We had our big victory in December 2020 when language schools in France were added to the list of the tourism and hospitality protected sector, which meant that staff was put on the furlough scheme and this prevented many redundancies,” tells Maitland.
She understands the situation of language schools in France is much better than many other countries, but at the same time highlights that the solution to the problem cannot only be financial support.
“The world as we know it is gone. People will travel less, so we need to turn this difficulty into an opportunity. I believe that online classes have a great potential to reach a new public.”
Nevertheless, positivity is a privilege that Del Fabro cannot afford.
“I am not one who easily gives in and I’ll try to do my best, but the point is that I feel left alone. Closing language schools won’t only mean making people redundant, but also losing the beauty of learning a new language, widening one’s mind and discovering new cultures,” she concludes.