Opening your own successful language school is something many English teachers dream of doing. The dream became a reality for one Englishman and his Thai partner. Andrew Fleming tells ajarn.com the secrets behind making a language school work.
Andrew, a very warm welcome to the ajarn hot seat. So first off, where is this language school of yours and what kind of students does it attract?
Hi Phil it’s good to be here and thank you for the invite. Our language school is called The English School of Learning (ESOL). The school is based in the North East of Thailand in a city called Udon Thani. We are approximately 50 Kilometers from the Laos border.
The school attracts students from as young as 6 years of age up to adults in their mid-forties. However, the majority of adults over the age of 22 are predominantly interested in one to one tuition. We also have a large number of students who are currently studying in Matyhom 1 to Matyhom 6.
We pride ourselves on being accessible in relation to our course fees. Therefore, we are attracting a ‘student base’ that previously could not afford to study English with a native English speaking teacher.
Sounds very commendable. Do the students come mainly at weekends or are you busy in the evenings as well?
Like most language schools our busiest times are at the weekend. We teach six hours on a Saturday and six hours on a Sunday. We are also open two evening per week. Therefore in total we teach 16 hours per week. I also deliver one to one classes in the week as and when required.
There are two courses currently being delivered at the school; our Prathom course and our ESOL English buffet course. The Prathom course is targeted at students aged 6 to 11 years of age. The course is delivered on a Saturday and Sunday morning from 10 am to 12 noon. We have fifteen students on this course and we already have a waiting list.
Students sign up for 16 hours a month for which they pay 1,500 baht. This equates to 94 baht per hour. However, most parents either pay three months or five months in advance, for which they get a considerable discount.
The ESOL English buffet course is a 12 hour a week course. The course is delivered on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. The course is also available throughout the week on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
The lessons on the weekend are from 1pm to 3pm in the afternoons and 5.30pm to 7.30pm in the evenings. The Monday and Wednesday evenings lessons also start at 5.30pm and finish at 7.30pm.
Students can come for every lesson or pick and choose dependant on their preference or availability. This course is extremely popular for it only started on the 1st June and we have already signed up 25 students. The course is excellent value for money, even if I say so myself. Students can pay 1,500 baht a month and if they were to attend all the 48 hours (12 hours x 4 weeks) this would equate to 31 baht per hour.
Students are also offered the option of signing up for five months at a time. The fee should be 7,500 baht; however we give them a discount of 1,500 baht so they only have to pay 6,000 baht for 5 months of study.
Could you give it us in more detail? Only joking. Before we go any further, does the school have a Facebook page or a website so readers can maybe look at a few photos and get a flavor of what the place actually looks like?
Yes, it does Phil. The address is www.facebook.com/englishschooloflearning
There are plenty of photos on there and pictures of our recent promotion materials.
What about Andrew Fleming the man? Tell us a bit about your career background in the UK Andrew because you were not involved in TEFL right?
I come from a town called Barnsley in South Yorkshire. Like most young men from our town, who left school in the 70’s, I started my working life as a coalminer at my local colliery. I worked down the mine for 13 years. I eventually left the industry when they closed the coalmine in 1991.
From there I went to work in local government and stayed there for twenty years where I progressed from been a volunteer youth worker to a senior manager for the Youth Service. I spent a lot of time working with young people delivering informal education.
It is fair to say I was very successful in my career and the work I was responsible for was inspected on three different occasions by OFSTED and graded as excellent.
Albeit that I was not working in formal education I have found the skills I have developed over the years have transferred extremely well into a TEFL career. A large number of the ‘confidence building’ activities I used to deliver in the UK have worked exceptionally well with Thai students in regards to speaking English.
But you’ve always seen yourself as the kind of guy who’s good with start-up projects?
The vast majority of my work with young people has involved developing new and exciting innovative projects. I have then taken responsibility for ‘project managing’ the ventures until they reach fruition.
Over the years a fair amount of my work has been recognised nationally and internationally. I have always felt that my 'key strengths' are that of developing pioneering projects from 'scratch'. This has been a very important factor in relation to starting a language school in a foreign county.
There has been a large amount of planning gone into this initiative and it has taken a lot of resolve on our part. In my opinion there are two different ‘skill sets’ required when running a language school; developmental skills and project management skills which both require a different approach.
When did your love affair with Thailand begin and what was the attraction of Udon Thani in particular? How did you end up there?
My first visit to Thailand was way back in 2004 Phil. I initially booked a package holiday which included Bangkok and Phuket. After a few days in both destinations I wanted to see more of Thailand.
I was fortunate to meet a guy who was about to fly to Udon Thani to see his girlfriend. He explained to me that Udon was located in Isaan which is the rural part of Thailand and if I really wanted to see the ‘real’ Thailand I should join him. I thought what the hell what have I got to lose.
I must say my first impression of Udon Thani was not that favorable. It was a very different city back then with very little to offer. The amount of change and investment over the years has been remarkable.
However, it was there that I met my future wife and the love of my life. She was working in Tesco Lotus in one of the little kiosks selling hair products. She was very shy back then and it took me a long time to get her attention. When I eventually plucked up the courage to ask her out she brought along a chaperone who was her best friend. Hasten to add she is not shy at all now and has grown in confidence and is a remarkable women. What she has achieved just goes to show sheer guts and determination amount for so much.
After you met your wife, you both went back to live in the UK but on annual ‘holiday visits’ to Udon Thani, you dabbled in a bit of teaching right?
Yes, my wife came to England on a settlement visa in 2005 and eventually gained British Citizenship after ‘jumping through all the necessary hoops’.
We visited Thailand every year for at least a month and would always spend at least three weeks in Udon Thani. One can imagine after a few visits to my wife’s village I would become restless and bored. I then decided to offer my services for free teaching English.
I started initially in the local village school and progressed over the years into big government schools and technical colleges. I must have made a good impression or either they were very desperate for teachers for I was asked on many occasions to take on a full time paid post.
I then started to ‘play’ with the idea of what would it be like to have a school of our own in Udon Thani.
And you decided to do a Master’s in TEFL while you were in your late 40s early 50s. That was quite a big decision?
Yes it was Phil but it was part of the bigger plan. I had always promised myself that I would like to change the direction in my life and try new challenges when I reached the ripe age of 50. This was fast approaching and I was due to have my 50th in the November of 2011.
I knew I would have to upgrade my qualifications if I was going to move to Thailand and open an English school with my wife. I made a decision that I would start a Masters Degree and undertake a four week TESOL course.
I started my masters Degree in leadership of integrated service in 2007 and finished it in 2010. This was not easy for I was also working full-time for the local government.
Most of my weekends would be taken up with studying. Once I completed this course I went straight into my TESOL course which was extremely demanding but very informative and enjoyable. This course has been very beneficial for I write all my own lesson plans and create my own course materials.
Let’s talk about the language school itself again because we’re all interested. My wife’s sister opened a language school about ten years ago and it failed miserably. She forgot the three golden rules of business – location, location, location. The footfall just wasn’t there. Your business we know is successful so you didn’t make the location error I guess?
I totally agree Phil - location is crucial. Once we decided that we were going to open an English school in Udon Thani we started undertaking research. We spent the last holiday, prior to relocating to Thailand, researching possible locations.
The first thing I discovered while undertaking the research is that there is a cultural difference in regards to how businesses are located over here compared to the UK. When starting a business in England we often try to be as far away as possible from our business competitors.
However, this is very different in Thailand. If you take the time to observe you will often find most of all the hair salons, motor vehicle body repair shops, clinics, and massage parlors are all situated in one location in very close proximity.
Once I realised that the majority of the language schools were ‘dotted’ around one particular location in Udon My wife and I started talking with students and adults to get their perspective on this matter.
We concluded that there was also another important factor taking place here. The area had become accepted by most parents as the location where it was safe to send one’s child to study and the area had credibility amongst the young people. In a sense it had become the ‘study zone’ of Udon Thani. To ignore these factors could be the difference in having a successful or unsuccessful business.
We have been very fortunate to be able to rent a space on a soi that runs behind the two biggest government schools in Udon. More than 10,000 students attend these institutes. We are located in the centre of the ‘study zone’ in Udon Thani.
Location is not the only thing that needs to be taken into consideration. You also need to be aware of what your unique selling points will be? Who will be your audience? What is currently on offer? What are the ‘gaps’ in the market?
After much deliberation and based on our research findings we agreed that our unique selling points would be: (1) we would be a family run school that offered a native speaking teacher alongside a Thai teacher for every lesson. (2) We would be extremely competitive in relation to fees (this was Udon Thani and we needed to be realistic) (3) we would offer English conversation skill courses underpinned by grammar. The courses would be delivered by using participatory teaching methods.
Interesting strategies. I know that one of the hardest parts in setting up a language school is getting your Ministry of Education license. Briefly what does the process involve and what are the timescales?
The operating license from the MOE which is required in order to run a school is not an easy piece of paper to obtain but is an essential requirement. There are so many regulations you have to meet.
The building you choose to open your school in must have a certain amount of space based on how many students you are proposing to teach. The classroom(s) have to meet certain size requirements. The school needs to have separate rest room facilities for both male and female students.
There needs to be a reception and a designated nurse’s room. You have to employ an architect to draw up your final plans. The final drawings need to be certified by a qualified architect. You also have to produce and include within your application the curriculum you are proposing to teach.
The person whom is applying for the license needs to be a Thai national aged over 21 years of age and hold a degree. They also need to have a background in education and be of sound mind.
In order to get the license you also have to show documentation that you are a registered Public Limited Company. If the school is going to employ a native speaker (me in this case) how the company is registered is crucial for this will impact upon your work permit application.
You cannot apply for the work permit without the operating license from the MOE and you cannot apply for the license without being a registered company.
Another key point here your school has to be finished prior to you applying for your operating license. In order to qualify for the license once you have submitted all the paper work you have to undergo a thorough inspection from the board of education.
We registered our Public Limited Company in the January of 2012. We had already found our premises in the middle of December 2011. We applied for our license in the January of 2012.
The paperwork went back and forth more times than I dare to remember. My wife had to resubmit it and at times it felt like the MOE did not know what they actually wanted. The ‘goalposts’ moved week by week. Our license was eventually approved April 2012.
We rented an old noodle shop which had not utilities and was just an empty space. We fully refurbished it which cost us around 250,000 baht. This had to be done prior to getting an operating license.
This is a ‘big gamble’ for you cannot take for granted that you will be given the operating license. Managing the Thai building team and undertaking the work permit processes is a story in itself. However, we were fully legitimate and ready to go in June 2012.
Therefore from start to finish the process took six months! Without the commitment, drive and ‘bloody sure determination’ of my wife we could have easily fallen by the wayside.
So in the school itself, how many classrooms do you have and what’s your seating capacity?
The school has only one classroom and a reception area with toilets. We have five desks and we can seat 15 students comfortably, 20 at a push if necessary. This is where the ESOL English buffet comes into its own.
Think about your local gym that maybe has space for 20 to 30 people to work out at any given time. What the gym does is sign up more members than it has space for. The gym knows that a large percentage of new members will be very keen at first then start to ‘drop off’. Initially members will attend 3 to 4 times a week and eventually reduce this to 1 to 2 times a week.
Based on this knowledge they can over subscribe their membership figures knowing that it is highly unlikely the gym will ever be overcrowded.
We have taken the same approach with our English buffet course and we know that we can ‘sign up’ 40 students and still never be full. For example at present we have 25 students enrolled on the buffet course but we have never had more than 14 students in one class at one time.
Marketing is always difficult as well isn’t it? What methods did you use to advertise the school in the early days?
Once up and running, recruiting students is not as easy as one may first imagine. The amount of work we have had to put into the school has been phenomenal. We have had to do everything ourselves. Anyone thinking of opening a school needs to take a long think about the amount of work required prior to opening.
Once you then get the ‘go ahead’ getting the school up and running should not be underestimated. Large numbers of students are already signed up to long periods of study at other institutions.
Our experience is that an English school solely delivering English lessons cannot compete with the tutor schools delivering packages of Maths, Science, Physics and English. This is about knowing your place in the market.
We have tried and tested a few different approaches from producing colour flyers to large billboards across the city. We have had to undertake hours of leafleting, talking with parents and students and basically ‘getting ourselves out there’. On average we leaflet two to three times a week. We undertake this outside government schools, at the local park and outside the night markets. The school is also affiliated with the local chamber of commerce and we attend many of their functions.
Only last month we spent 30,000 baht on a new campaign promoting our new buffet course and Prathom course. We had 20,000 leaflets produced and paid for 20 very large billboards to be strategically placed across the city. To see what our flyers look like visit the school’s Face book page.
Promotion and marketing is an important factor to the success of any business. You have to speculate to accumulate.
Are you at the stage now where simple ‘word of mouth’ is working for you?
We now feel we have a 'winning formula' but cannot sit back yet. In my opinion 'word of mouth' is the key to any school's success. We have got a good reputation and are starting to get well known across the city.
I have also put in place a monitoring system that informs us how students/parents initially found out about us. We are currently at 30% ‘word of mouth’. However, I estimate it will take around three years before we can actually say "we have done it" and all our students come based on ‘word of mouth’.
An obvious question I suppose but what are the best and worst aspects of running your own language school?
Without doubt Phil I love it. I have totally changed my life and feel part of the city of Udon Thani. This city has become my home now and I feel I have a good friendship group both Western and Thai.
I have worked in a government school while awaiting our school license and now realise having your own school is totally different. Albeit a lot harder work but you are in total control of what you deliver and how you deliver it.
The big difference here though is you can succeed or fail based on the decisions you make or fail to make. You only have yourself to blame.
The best aspects for me is the marketing and coming up with new and exciting ways to deliver our English language lessons. I produce all my own lesson plans and design my own resources. Our teaching methods seem to work and many of our students have not only increased their English grades at school but their language skills have visibly improved and they are able to communicate effectively in English.
We never fail to take in to consideration that the students are the paying customers. They have a right to know at the end of each lesson what have they actually learnt. This approach is built into every lesson.
The worst aspect is not being able to understand or communicate in Thai. This puts a large amount of work onto my wife’s shoulders in relation to networking and leading on discussions with potential customers.
At times this can be very frustrating for I am an ‘ideas’ person and not being able to communicate your ideas can be most frustrating. Quite often the key details of an idea can be lost in translation.
When I get the time I must put more energy into learning Thai! My wife gets frustrated for I am always producing new flyers and brochures in English. She then has the task of translating everything into Thai.
Can we be very cheeky and ask roughly how much you and your wife earn from the business?
This venture has not been cheap we initially spent around 5,000 sterling pounds on refurbishing the unit that we have rented. The good news is that year 1 saw us make a profit. I wrote off the initial capital investment for we would normally have spent that on two holidays coming to Thailand. We have lived here now for over a year and a half.
We are currently making around 70,000 baht a month and are only teaching 16 hours a week. The more students we recruit to the English buffet course the higher our monthly income will become.
Our monthly outgoings consist of 5,000 baht rent per month for the unit, around 1,000 baht on utilities and 1,000 baht on photocopying. When I undertake private lessons our income is ‘boosted’. I use this additional income to pay for more promotional materials.
I would just like to say to anyone thinking about starting up a school do not underestimate the bureaucracy you will have to face and the hard work ahead of you. On paper a school may look like a ‘get rich quick’ scheme in reality this is not the case.
We are very fortunate that we also rent out our two properties in the UK and are safe in the knowledge if the school was to take a ‘downturn’ we would still be financially ok. However, if you are determined go for it! Our journey has only just started but we are loving every minute of it!!