Hot Seat

Stuart Stripling

It's always good to get an interview with guys in the private language school business - the managers or academic directors on the frontline. Stuart Stripling is Managing Director of Insight English on Silom Road in Bangkok. So how are things shaping up for Thailand's private language school market?

Q

Hi Stuart, welcome to the ajarn.com hot seat. Let's begin with what Insight English is all about. What kind of courses do you offer and to what kind of students?

A

We offer courses for all ages and abilities from very young learners through to business professionals. The type of student varies depending on the location of the school. In central Bangkok we do a lot of test preparation for IELTS and also corporate training. In Lad Prao we are in the process of taking over a young learners school so in that branch it will mainly be children. In Hua Hin there are a lot of Russian students and their learning style is really quite different. They also offer Thai courses and education visas which are popular.

Q

What would you say is your mission statement?

A

To provide the highest possible standard of live instruction to people of all ages and abilities.

Q

Insight English is owned by your good self and two other partners. Which private language schools in Thailand had you three guys worked for previously?

A

We all came from a large international language school chain that I would rather not name. Between us we have had extensive experience as Country Manager and DOS at various branches.

Q

Where did you feel that that particular private language school chain was going wrong?

A

The main issue was flexibility for students. The company was making courses more expensive while reducing flexibility and program choice. We believe that the program should be designed to fit the student’s needs as opposed to shoehorning a student into a program that does not allow them to achieve their study goals. We also felt that should a student like or want to learn with a particular teacher, that this should be possible.

Q

How do you think the private language school market has changed over the last 10 years or so?

A

The market is certainly more discerning than in the past. To put it bluntly simply being a “farang” was enough to get you a job. Nowadays private language schools are more thorough in their recruitment as students complain if they are not happy. They have often been to a number of schools and know good from bad.

It was also very easy to stay in Thailand without a work permit. A lot of people probably still remember being able to simply send your passport to the border for a new visa every 30 days. I guess this still happens, but not to the extent it did in the past.

Q

I spent virtually all of my 15-year Thailand teaching career in the private language school game and years ago there were quite a few big players in this market. But the market seems to have gotten smaller in terms of the number of schools around - or am I completely wrong?

A

There are still a number of big players in the market although some have either withdrawn from Thailand or reduced the number of branches. Newer entries have changed the model with technology and computers forming a large part of their business.

There are a lot of independent operators outside of Bangkok with very small schools. I think a lot of the bigger chains are finding it difficult to maintain the quality of instruction and therefore compete with schools that are not as instructor intensive.

Q

You work closely with two 'study abroad' companies. How do those partnerships work?

A

We work with Insight Education, a Australian study abroad agency and Hands On, a UK agency. We work together at events as a quality English school adds value to their offering. We also refer students. Our values are closely aligned and we all believe in quality service.

Q

How many branches do you have apart from the one in downtown Bangkok?

A

We have branches and franchises in Hua Hin, Cha-am, Chiang Mai, Minburi, Khon Kaen and Lad Prao. Chonburi will be opening in June and we are also in talks to open schools in Myanmar.

Q

Sounds impressive in terms of expansion. So you are also franchising the brand?

A

Yes we are looking to expand our reach into more areas and provinces through franchising. This is proving relatively successful. We offer a franchise for 450,000 Baht plus a 7% royalty on all turnover. We provide support throughout the period before opening along with ongoing support for training and development.

Hua Hin and Cha-am have been very successful with this model and we are confident the emphasis we place on quality will ensure the success of other locations.

We are also working on how to scale the franchising approach up and to apply a standard teaching methodology that is appropriate for beginners. Ideally, we would then like to be able to open a branch a week in a different market. Thailand is allowing us to refine our approach and model.

We now have a franchise support manager who is Thai and provides training and development at the franchise locations. She rotates between branches, helping with sales, strategy and systems. We also have a training manager who works with the franchisees and DOS at the individual branches. He identifies training needs and helps to ensure quality of instruction is maintained.

Q

Let's talk about the hiring of foreign teachers. Is your turnover of teachers getting higher or lower?

A

It has remained quite static over the last few years. We hire not only based on a teacher having the necessary qualifications but also personality. We can usually train the skills needed to be a good teacher after identifying weaknesses.

If a teacher is not responding to training we will let them go. If a teacher has problems with punctuality or does not turn up for a class we will let them go.

Instructors also move on to new things and jobs from time to time and we wish them the best of luck. Recently a teacher left to work for AUA but returned to us after 3 months.

Thailand may seem more relaxed but we don’t think people should be treated any differently than if they were working in the West. Teachers are generally paid substantially more than the Thai staff at a language school so I don’t think it is unfair to expect them to be professional.

Q

What do you find to be the biggest problems when it comes to recruiting teachers through interview processes?

A

We have pretty much stopped interviewing teachers in the traditional sense of the word. We now have a 10 minute chat with a candidate. We then give him/her 20 minutes to prepare a lesson and they have to teach a member of staff for 20 minutes.

We feel that if someone says they are a teacher they should not have a problem teaching someone. If you interviewed someone for a job as a chef and they looked panicked at the idea of cooking a meal, would you employ them? We apply the same logic to teachers.

Having said that, the demonstration lesson is purely to see how comfortable they are in the classroom. Two of our best instructors gave the worst demonstrations lessons I have ever seen. We saw that they had something about them and they responded to the training. They are now assets to the business.

Q

Hope for us all then? Can I ask how much your teachers get paid? Is it purely hourly work or do you offer monthly guaranteed salaries?

A

The hourly rate for Bangkok is 450 Baht/hour rising to as much as 1,000 Baht/hour for teaching at some of our corporate clients. If a teacher is popular he/she will get requested by students and they will bring their friends who also want to learn with that teacher. They average 60,000 Baht/month.

We would like to offer full time salaries, however private students and corporates have flexibility as to when they study. This leads to peaks and troughs in business and means that at times we can be very busy and need the teachers to be able to take on extra classes.

Q

I certainly can't knock a thousand an hour for corporate gigs and 450 baht for in-house stuff is not bad. But as you say, one of the problems for any teacher at a private language school is that it can sometimes be 'feast or famine' But we can't make people study during the day if they are not available during the day of course. OK, on with the questions - I think Thailand is getting noticeably more and more expensive and more difficult for people to survive on teacher's salaries. Would you agree?

A

Oh yes, without a doubt, particularly Bangkok. However it really depends on your lifestyle and the places you go. I think the more salubrious areas of town are more expensive and the Irish pubs are also expensive. You can still eat and live very cheaply if you want to though. Outside of Bangkok the cost of living is still very cheap. Salaries are often lower to reflect this though.

Q

A rhetorical question I guess but do you have any problems making teachers legal in terms of work permits, visa extensions, etc?

A

No, We are registered with the MOE and don’t have any problems. A teacher needs a degree and a 120 hour TEFL certificate. The regulations seem to be different for some schools but for us that is what they are.

Q

So what about the future for Insight English? Things sound promising.

A

I believe it is. We have survived for the last 8 years and are now expanding. There will be challenges as we move forward but yes I would say things are looking good for the future.

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