Caroline Ansell: English language schools are crucial to our tourism industry. But their survival is at stake.

1 Aug

Caroline Ansell is Conservative MP for Eastbourne.

In my constituency, nearly one job in three depends on tourism. That’s why I have been relentlessly lobbying both in Parliament and behind the scenes to support this sector through the pandemic.

You might think that the ending of restrictions means life will return to normal on the pier and in our amusement arcades, shops and cafes, but that’s not the full tourism story for our town and many others.

For now, staycationers have taken the place of the town’s usual tourists, enjoying everything we have to offer, but as international travel reopens for fully-vaccinated British people many may instead choose the guaranteed sunshine of southern Europe.

If that does happen, quarantine regulations will mean a large gap remains in the economy of Eastbourne and many other British towns and cities, a gap usually filled by international students.

It’s a little-known fact that students learning English in the UK are the bedrock of Eastbourne’s tourist economy and many other towns and cities on the South coast and all over the UK. In Eastbourne alone, we have six English language teaching (ELT) centres. Our international students are a vital part of the visitor landscape, whereby each summer the town’s population swells and its average age plummets.

Our international schools are local employers. They provide business for local transport and tourist venues, and pump-prime retail and food outlets. Likewise, importantly, there is secondary income support for the several hundred host families for whom the time in the summer hosting students makes the difference. All of these secondary businesses, and these families, are missing the annual 500,000 students who stopped booking and arriving in March 2020, with little or no prospect of their return while two weeks of quarantine is compulsory.

Sixty per cent of ELT students are teenagers from Europe who come for a week or two: they’re unlikely to come if they’ll spend longer quarantining than on their course. And ELT is a seasonal industry: if our schools – predominantly SMEs – miss summer and Easter peaks, that’s most of their income lost.

That’s exactly what has happened – no significant income since summer 2019, and no prospect of any until well into 2022. Figures from the trade association English UK found a £590m loss for last year, for a sector which normally puts £1.4bn into our economy.

Though Eastbourne’s ELT schools are financially on the ropes, they’ve had more help than many of their colleagues around the UK. Their local authority is one of a small minority which has granted expanded retail discount – basically wiping out business rates – for both last financial year and this one.

They and I am very grateful to Eastbourne District Council for this concession. It makes it slightly more likely that we can preserve UK ELT’s global reputation and expertise, which meant that pre-Covid we taught English to more international students than any of our competitors.

But this industry’s survival is still not guaranteed, which is why with other backbench colleagues I am continuing to campaign for more targeted government help for English language schools and tourism. Our first ask has been for the Government to ensure that all English language schools automatically get business rates relief. While furlough continues, rates are the largest outgoing for many centres: I know of one London school which has received a summons for £137,000 unpaid council tax.

It’s not a mansion, but like most ELT schools needs plenty of space for classrooms and common rooms, and to be in a safe and central location.

Simply extending the business rates relief concession to all language schools would help many to survive until the spring, when we hope students will be booking and arriving once more. Industry estimates are that this would cost just £17m.

But the end of furlough will create new problems as it is likely to be months before bookings begin to flow once more: how many trained and experienced English teachers and other staff will be lost to the industry in the intervening months? How would that affect our ability to attract students from all over the world, as we step into a new future?

It is hugely important that we look at the wraparound to this sector. Anything and everything that could present a barrier or an obstacle, or make us less competitive in the world, we should look at and address to make sure that we are match-fit for the future.

Why is this so important? ELT has been a hugely important export for us, both in its own right and as a crucial part of our £20bn international education jigsaw. This is made clear in our International Education Strategy, which commits to increase our capacity to meet the global demand for ELT, and forge closer partnerships with other sectors in our export drive.

The teenagers who come to Eastbourne, or Bournemouth, or a summer camp in an independent school, are more likely to build a lifetime’s affinity with the UK. They are more likely to aspire to do degrees in the UK, for instance, and research shows 80 per cent of those who have studied here will return for business or leisure. Visit Britain research shows that ELT students stay longer and spend much more than other tourists.

If we wish to retain those benefits of social and cultural enrichment, of inward investment and soft power, I believe the specific calls of the sector need to be debated, just as its deep value to the UK needs to be celebrated.

And when Eastbourne pier is once more thronged with French teenagers, we can heave a sigh of relief.