Note: I’m very fond of the British Council and I owe them a lot. This is not intended as a critique – I really want to see them rebuild their operations here in Thailand. This is just my idea.
It sounds like the British Council in Thailand are being forced to downsize/restructure. Two of their five language centres have shut, including the place where I cut my teeth post-Dip. Reduced hours contracts are being offered at other centres, lots of severance pay being offered too, and some of my friends/former colleagues are now scratching around for other opportunities.
It’s disappointing to hear about how things are going there. Still, I’d say it’s been on the cards for a while – certainly before COVID. During my time at the Council here, it was clear that our centres weren’t that competitive. All told, our offer wasn’t too dissimilar to other language schools, bar some of the bells and whistles offered by competitors like Wall Street. We were at the higher end price-wise, but it’s too simplistic to say that the BC priced themselves out of the market. Personally, I feel the company have failed to evolve, adapt to market trends, and address the needs of their target demographic in Thailand.
The target market
The BC as a brand is synonymous with quality teaching and learning. They are held in such high regard here that they are the go-to provider of in-school English language provision at renowned university demonstration schools, and some of the best private institutions in the country. The only equivalent provider here with an equally strong reputation is Bell.
Note: the language provision that the BC offer at these schools is not the same as at schools with ‘English programmes’, which involve the teaching of subject content in English. The BC’s English provision is more MFL in nature.
The Secondary student body at the BC language centres often comes from those fee-paying schools. When I worked in the BC flagship centre here, lots of our Secondary learners were also studying at local demonstration schools. When I moved to a satellite centre, students would often come from bilingual schools, renowned convent schools, and popular secondary schools with established ‘English programmes’. These schools aren’t cheap. The fact that customers were willing to pay for additional English classes despite their children learning subject content in English at their main school probs says a lot about the drive to acquire English (among this target market), and perhaps the power of the brand.
However, the fact is that student numbers aren’t and haven’t been strong for a while. I’d say there are two reasons for this.
- In-house products: not meeting learner needs?
Studying an English programme or being at a bilingual school here means encountering a high level of academic English during everyday schooling. At the time I worked there, the British Council didn’t have a product that aligned to the content covered in a typical secondary curriculum here. Instead, in their language schools, they used a global in-house product which was fairly typical of other offerings in the global market. Soft-CLIL, non-specialist, theme-based, language-driven.
It was a really well-written product and enjoyable to teach, but wasn’t entirely fit for purpose. For our learners there was definitely a need to develop language proficiency around content. However, as is the case with lots of soft-CLIL, the content we were using to help drive the language input was both general and leaning towards broader social science/humanities themes to make it more accessible for non-specialists to teach. The project-based approach underpinning it and the expected coverage of the syllabus also led to sustained inquiry in areas of less interest/relevance for the learners.
When considering the (somewhat crude) distinction of BICS and CALP, teaching and learning for Secondary learners definitely covered the basic interpersonal skills. It covered functional language and language that was broadly transferable across academic contexts, and touched upon academic themes. However, what it had in skills coverage it lacked in depth of content. Plus, the content that was included wasn’t immediately applicable for learners in their context. Learners may have benefitted more from consolidating curriculum content and perhaps a focus on topic-specific language, both of which being equally useful vehicles for additional language input.
A soft-CLIL product does have its place, and with wraparound such as academic skills development (and exam skills such as IELTS in this context) it is perhaps valuable. However, it didn’t offer enough for BC’s target learners in the current market, especially given their choices for English language provision have increased. That for me has been the big shift that has left the BC with less of a foothold in the market. The BC need to move on from ‘just’ language teaching – consumers demand more, and other institutions provide more.
2. Expansion of the international schools market
The rise of non-traditional international schools here, aimed at host nationals, have made quality English medium instruction widely available. The international curricula offered by these schools has sway. This means the international schools can tempt (and are tempting) learners away from other fee paying schools here – especially as demonstration schools are highly competitive.
A saturated market makes these international schools more affordable than some might imagine (esp given special offers/family discounts and so on). They are certainly not cheap, but for many parents they represent a solid investment; there are still some of the networking opportunities open to learners that they would otherwise get in prestigious Thai schools, plus they will develop high proficiency in English which opens up opportunities for studying abroad. Mid-tier international schools also tend to be less selective (a cynic might say that from a business perspective they need bums on seats), and can deliver bespoke EAL provision including both in-class and an additional support.
The student base at my international school includes plenty of learners who have moved across from private schools in Thailand – including ones where the British Council provide some of the general English language provision. To ensure that these learners are getting the right level of EAL provision, international schools are turning to skilled language specialists. Where once ‘EAL teacher’ may have seemed synonymous on the international circuit with ‘trailing spouse of a qualified teacher’, these days there’s high demand for quality English language provision. There’s increasing recognition for ELT specific qualifications such as a Delta or DipTESOL, and a growing appreciation for the fact that a mid-tier international school is only as good as its EAL programme.
Are teachers actually losing out from the BC’s failings?
Who are the international schools turning to for skilled language specialists? The British Council – just not directly. In recent years there have been many teachers leave the Council and head into EAL roles at international schools. With recent closures, even more BC staff will look to do the same. Some of the BCs best staff only a few years ago are now working in EAL at some of the top schools in Thailand, including Bangkok Patana, Shrewsbury, Lanna, and St Andrews (Nord Anglia). It’s worth noting that this trend is not exclusive in this region to Thailand. Plenty of former colleagues of mine are now at international schools in Vietnam, others have ventured over to Cambodia.
What could the BC do?
For me, the underlying cause of BCs problems here was their failure to read the market. Had they done this, the solution to their language centre woes would have been clear I think – get rid of them earlier. Focus their operations on building a quality model of EAL provision for international schools. Setting up partnerships with new schools, consulting on EAL provision, providing quality staff for in-class EAL support, and encouraging those staff to build effective CLIL provision for additional EAL classes based on actual curriculum content.
Overheads for the BC would have decreased – they’d have little need for fixed locations. For other avenues of their teaching and learning such as Business English they could have run these in-company instead. For EAL provision, international schools would pick up the rent on locations and simply provide BC with space and (hands-on) access to the curriculum. The BC could provide in-house CPD on co-teaching and co-planning, adjunct models of CLIL, and so on. Their staff could have taken on administrative roles such as admissions interviews which often involve EAL screening.
While they’ve been slow to read the market, it is still possible for the BC to act. Moving into EAL provision solves the main problems for the company – they can shift away from their failing products, build a niche for themselves, and lead the way with hard-CLIL curriculum aligned resources – those which could well form a resource bank with relevance to markets in other regions.
This move would benefit multiple stakeholders. Learners get tighter and more purposeful provision in support of language (and content) development. Parents would have faith in the offer given the strength of the BC brand. Teachers would receive great opportunities to upskill and a chance to move with the market. The company would survive and thrive, and can build further connections to benefit the UK, such as affiliations with international schools just as they have with UK universities.
What’s holding the organization back from taking this forward-thinking step? That’s hard to say. I do see it as a fairly risk averse company, although the failed gamble a few years back on shifting to in-house products might suggest otherwise. Perhaps there would be too many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, or it might be that aligning with international schools may not fit with the ethos of the company. There must be some kind of barrier, if not I feel like this might be a clear opportunity missed.