The flow and ebb of English Language teaching in Hastings

The national accreditation system operated by the British Council to maintain quality assured teaching standards for English language teaching currently lists 46 institutions based along the Channel coast between Plymouth and Margate. Only three of these are in Hastings: English for Less, operating out of East Sussex College, and two small ventures undertaken by Buckswood – an international business school and an “overseas summer school”. This compares with 17 in Brighton and five in Eastbourne.  Yet in their heyday a dozen or more English language schools of Hastings catered for thousands of teenage and (predominantly) young adult students from all over the world.

In the 1990s there were at least five year-round language schools, headed by Tschaerborg, a Swedish outfit that re-branded as English First (EF), STS (the Student Travel Service) and International House. There were also a dozen or more other pop-up schools over the summer. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the whole of Eastern Europe wanted not just to learn English but to visit England to do it. One insider estimates that Hastings accommodated up to 36,000 English language students successively over the course of a single year in around 1998/99. 

To chart how this tide of student visitors has gradually ebbed, the rise and fall of one major provider is worth tracing.

The story starts at International House (IH), a major English language teaching centre based near Piccadilly Circus in London from the 1960s onwards.

In 1972 a recently qualified IH teacher, Adrian Underhill, was seconded to teach a group of 22 Libyan students in Hastings on a six-month course. Rooms and facilities were provided there in Norman Road, St Leonards by a small existing language school, the College of English Studies.

CREDIT: Dex Gilbert

Palace Hotel to Gensing Manor

This swiftly developed into the establishment of an IH branch in Hastings, which opened in July 1973 in the old Palace Hotel, a mid-Victorian building on the sea front close to the pier which accommodated about 20 rooms with balconies directly overlooking the sea, but was fitted out to provide a student club room, cafeteria and games room, located in the hotel ballroom offering majestic pillars, a wooden dance floor and panoramic sea views. This was the community heart of the school for the next 26 years: hanging out in “the Club” was a rite of passage for a wide mix of international students.

Adrian himself built a reputation for the Hastings IH school in running teacher-training courses, both short (four weeks was a norm) and longer term, and in developing both a style of teaching and materials to go with it which spread across the world. He is still regarded by many as an inspired luminary in the field 

As it grew, IH took a long lease of Gensing Manor, a four-storey 19th century villa on Dane Road fitted out with 16 classrooms and used as its summer centre. When in 1999 IH was taken over by another company, Embassy, with language schools in multiple locations – others were in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton – Gensing Manor became its year-round centre. Over the next decade it was teaching up to 450 overseas students a week in peak periods.

Reg Veale, who had been a principal with Embassy for seven years after a previous teaching and management career overseas with the British Council, became its Centre Director, effectively a ‘branch manager’.

Hastings “most profitable”

“Foreign students tend to plump for Oxford and Cambridge for their  academic cache, for London as global city, and for Brighton, hearing of its ‘fun’ reputation,” he says. “But at one time Hastings was the most profitable school in the group, maybe because overheads were cheaper. 

“I concentrated on managing groups from different countries – Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Italy. A lot of European groups stayed just for five days or a week; those from further afield might be here for three or four weeks, centred in Hastings but making trips to London, France, Brussels and Amsterdam. Winter students came from all over the world – China, the Middle East, Latin America, Russia, you name it. Language teaching was the focus, but people came for a much wider cultural experience.” 

Of the £3m annual income Embassy was grossing, around £500,000 was spent in payments to host families. In addition the school offered round-the-clock emergency support. Students might be in class only half a day, but were generally kept busy with daily activities. 

Accommodation policy

Raquel, a former Embassy employee, arrived in 1986 as a child from Panama, received secondary education in Hastings, and then did a teacher training course at Embassy to qualify as an EFL teacher. Later she worked as Embassy’s accommodation officer finding and supporting about 40 host families.

She recalls: “Our policy was to put four students, each with a different native language, in accommodation together to encourage them to speak English as a common tongue with each other. We paid the hosts a little better than some other schools”. 

“It was a happy place to work”, says a former Embassy teacher, Marnie: “almost more like a family than a business.  Students would regularly come back. I was treated as a person there. Hastings College paid more, but we teachers were better treated at Embassy”.

It could also be a romantic place for students. Valerie, another former teacher recalls a female Korean student who came for over a year – she met a guy from Taiwan on the Embassy course, married him and they now have a family back in his home land. In 2018 a couple of Swiss students from Zurich turned up to find the place where the young man’s parents had met and fallen in love 25 years before.

Adverse events

But in the twenty-first century English language teaching was becoming an increasingly competitive business. And there was a series of adverse events, both local and global that contributed to a decline in demand.  

Locally, there were a small number of attacks on overseas students in Hastings, including the death of a Qatari student in 2008, which gave the town a negative reputation. Reg remembers articles being published in several German newspapers warning of xenophobic risks. 

Globally, the 9/11 attack in New York in 2001 and the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London made foreign travel seem more dangerous. The global SARS outbreak in 2002-04 and the ash cloud from the Iceland volcano in 2011 each severely affected transatlantic tourism for a while.

Reg thinks that the growth of the internet and of other communications technology was also a big factor in the decline. “People can access language courses online without having to leave home”, he says. “TV channels everywhere broadcast programmes in English. The fact is that English language programmes in the USA and in Australia suffered similar declines over the same period.

“There was also an increasing regulatory burden on us which added substantially to our overheads. Health and safety issues, employment regulations etc, required us to employ a whole admin department.”

REDIT: Dex Gilbert

Embassy taken over

In 2004 Embassy, previously owned by the Daily Mail, was taken over by an Australian private equity firm ‘Champ’ and in 2010 passed to another American one. They stopped doing teacher training. Teachers had generally been on full-time contracts. The new owners got rid of most of these full-time staff by closing the school down for three months, then re-hiring the cheaper staff on what they called permanent contracts which ran for only a period of months with a guarantee of 15 hours minimum per week.

The 2014 Immigration Act enacted by David Cameron’s coalition government was a further key factor in the decline. Up to that point many foreigners would study in Hastings or elsewhere, then go on, armed with a requisite diploma, to study at British universities. But student visas came under scrutiny because of concerns that they were leading to excessive numbers of immigrants. The effect of the Act was that non-EU students over the age of 18 could not get an entry visa unless they could show themselves already proficient in English. Even those that did faced a series of bureaucratic hurdles. The all-year-round market in Hastings effectively collapsed.

The summer market has now also largely disappeared. Obviously the Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions put paid to coach parties from Europe from March 2020 onwards; it’s not knowable yet how Brexit and the consequently increasing bureaucratic controls on entry by EU citizens may affect any attempted business revival.  But Ireland was, even before Brexit, a major competitor, regarded as safer and cheaper than the UK. Post-Brexit it will have obvious attractions for EU students.

Embassy sold its world-wide business to another global operator EC English in 2018, and the school ceased to operate. The lease of Gensing Manor was surrendered to the freeholder.

More exotic?

That’s not quite the end of the story. Mr Veale has retained all the former school’s key contacts and its connections with foreign suppliers, with local teachers and with potential host families. He has used these to go on running a low-key business trading as Majors Study Tours. And he himself is upbeat.  As to Brexit, the global dominance of the English language isn’t going to change, and leaving the EU might, in his view, make Britain seem a more exotic place to spend time in.  

But what are the prospects for other English language providers in a post-Covid world? It may be that the forced resort to online teaching and learning will continue to trend even when – if – restrictions are fully lifted. Once online becomes the norm, language can be studied anywhere, and perhaps there is no longer any benefit in setting up the cluster of schools which Hastings once had. Reg does wonder how many of the British Council-accredited schools in other towns will emerge from the pandemic. 

On the other hand, what is clearly missing in this new digital world is the immersive connection, social and cultural, that language schools offered.  Anyone from Hastings who goes globe-trotting, whether in Europe or further afield, is likely to have experienced a conversation with a stranger somewhere that goes like this:

“Where are you from?”

“From England”.
“Where in England?”
“From Hastings – it’s a town on the South Coast”.
“Hastings! I know it. That’s where I learnt my English!”

It would be a shame if those conversations dried up like a beach with the tide gone out.

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