ELT Advocacy Ireland: Origins

ELT Advocacy Ireland started in the middle of a ‘College Closure Crisis’ in Ireland in late 2014.

Two English language schools closed in April of that year. Occasionally education businesses close, just like shops. The first closure in early April was normal a small school that probably wasn’t pulling in the numbers of students it needed to stay in the black. This second one in late April was different.

The second one was quite a large school. It was seemingly legitimate, even exemplary in terms of size and prominence in the local sector. It was approved by all the quasi-governmental bodies and owners’ associations. It was that is until a week or two before the closure. The snap closure of this flagship school revealed the weaknesses in Irish ELT school governance and gaps in inspection protocols. It showed the simple flaws of voluntary regulations. It demonstrated the wavering and optional commitment to standards and ethics in for-profit education business. The concern for ‘customers’ rarely extended beyond that of any shop owner who was selling a product which he did not produce and did not desire to understand. Perhaps it was this prominent school’s closure which helped to raise international awareness of the lack of real mandatory standards to regulate the Irish ELT sector. Other questions came forward.

Students are disappointed standing in front of their closed ELT school

A large well-known city centre school in Dublin shuts down unexpectedly. Students are disappointed. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Whether it was the cause or not, two months later Venezuela, whose young people had been flocking to Dublin to learn English, stopped sending support money to its students abroad. Why? There was a strong suspicion that families opposed to the new Maduro regime were using the currency exchange to quietly transfer money out of the country to avoid record inflation. The Maduro regime stopped the flow of Cadivi funds to their citizens studying in Ireland, reducing the size of Dublin’s student market in a matter of months.

This was a significant crisis for many newer schools operating in the city. They were dependent on the Venezuelan students’ tuitions. So more schools closed. The closures also meant increased press attention and that meant the flawed voluntary inspection regimes were under pressure to demonstrate their worth if only to the press. Inspections duly followed, if only to keep up the appearance of a watchdog. The inspections were often haphazard and generally the inspections by the toothless voluntary regulator was under-resourced. Nevertheless a failed inspection meant stress for newer school managers and their employers. The employers were businesspeople who saw their ELT schools as investments which were now riskier and more troublesome than a few months earlier. Those who were already on the fence about whether and how to keep their language school business moving forward saw this as a time to exit the market.

A series of cold snap closures followed…

Stories of defrauded students, of careless or incompetent businesspeople, of criminality and bankruptcy were in the media every month from April 2014 to May 2015.

The English Language Teachers were rarely featured except holding signs asking for their last month’s wages. There was no advice or story for them when they, like the old whiteboards, were left out on the street.

One ELT worker, a Director of Studies (DOS) or teacher manager, reacted to the news that her school was going to be closed by standing with her school’s students on the day the cowardly sign was to be pinned to the door by courier. The police were also there on the doorstep with her to keep the peace in case students were (justifiably) angry. But they were calm. SIPTU’s Louise O’Reilly was there thanks to one teacher who had a union membership. It was one teacher. It was far too late to have called.

The press was there. Changing the names of the school and owners they could have cut and pasted a fairly accurate story together from the closures that had occured in the six months since April. This was October 2014. The coming winter provided no respite from the closures which finally totalled up to 17 schools and colleges in the for-profit private education sector. That was about 1 closure in every 7 year-round private language schools in Dublin.

Students and staff stand in front of the locked door of Leinster College with Gardaí on the day of its snap closure.

Leinster College Closure. October 2014. Photo: Dave Meehan :: Source screen grab: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/leinster-college-announces-temporary-closure-1.1979346

Who else was on the doorstep? Not the owners. The teachers who worked with her were with her. So were, a number of the students. These were the people too numerous to put in the papers. The scene was sad, cynical and exhausted. Months of work for teachers, years of savings for students and their families: gone. The government was committed to keeping its hands off business. It continues to maintain a no-regulation environment.

Why? Was it because the negative result only hurt non-Irish students and working Irish people? Was it because this no-regulation for-profit private education business sector visa scheme brought in thousands of temporary workers for the low-wage positions which every Irish business owner loved to have on tap and desperate as cleaners, floor staff and au pairs? Was it because of the millions brought to Ireland annually through international students’ rents and expenses and tuitions? Would there really be serious damage to Brand Ireland if this invisible sector remained unregulated so all these students could continue to flow easily into the low-cost English language learning destination which Dublin’s regulation-free zone had created? Not really: the damage done has so far been repaired by the mere promise of reform.

And the out-of-work? They could find lower wage jobs or spend time on Jobseeker’s.

But that one DOS decided to find out more and see what she could do to change the mess that she saw herself, her students and her co-workers in. Pro-actively she timetabled a meeting at the Irish Council for International Students. She wanted advice for the teachers in this so-called College Closure Crisis. After her meeting she decided to set up a self-organised campaign to pool the mutual experiences of the staff in English language teaching organizations, closed and operating. She set up a Facebook group and, a month or so later, she called an initial meeting at The Central Hotel on Exchequer Street. Many were her personal contacts and most had got the time and date from the Facebook group and ELT friends who were curious. It was 5 March 2015. There were teachers and staff from schools around Dublin city, all of whom wanted to discuss the ongoing crisis and find ways to help each other through it.

The Central Hotel on Exchequer Street. Site of the first ELT Advocacy Open Meeting 5 March 2015

The Central Hotel on Exchequer Street. Site of the first ELT Advocacy Open Meeting 5 March 2015.

The idea was to form an organization that would address the obvious problems the industry forced on its teachers. But we also wanted to discuss the different influences and interests common to English language teachers. These included cultural experiences, professional development, linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and of course career paths and ideas. Perhaps unsurprisingly the bulk of the topics people wanted to discuss with urgency were the ones their managers had to constantly push into the corners in low-pay for-profit education environments. The hot topics were the terms and conditions of contracts, work, and pay. The bedrock of professionalism is being able to spend your working life doing what you claim to be: in our case professional committed English Language Teachers. As the dictionary might define it… Professional: engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation. If we were not able not rely on ELT paying us a fair wage or holding up its end of the contract, as many of us had experienced, then how could we responsibly commit our working lives to it? Even another year? If we were professionals we had to somehow hold the business side to account.

But strategies for doing this are stymied when the practicalities of standing up for oneself or one’s peers includes employer retaliation. The risks were obvious and demonstrated frequently. There are a variety of techniques snuff out critical thinking in precarious for-profit private education businesses: reduction of teaching hours, non-renewal of contract, blocking advancement, even blacklisting. Owners have associations where they can share stories about teachers, advice on employment methods and HR agency and solicitor contacts. Individual career-committed teachers, just as much as the new entrants, are overwhelmed by the imbalance of power. Having seen many of our co-workers (and friends) taken off the timetable at the end of a week, many feel justified in our fears to speak (even privately) about union membership. This persists despite the fact that union membership is a constitutional right in the Republic.

That night, each attempt to talk about ways to improve the profession led us back to the fundamental need for safety and stability in the profession and the workplace. But any ‘advancement’ in the school system was revealed to be equally fruitless: no DOS had ever been kept on until retirement in Dublin. And the DOS is the top academic position in an ELT school. In ELT in Ireland you can not ‘rise above’ precarity.

Doing nothing and even speaking up for yourself alone wouldn’t work either. Teachers had been let go for being too old to be the right fit for the young student demographic. They had lost hours for getting pregnant and ‘spreading poison’. That meant in one ‘notorious’ case a pregnant teacher speaking about her fear that a cut in ‘extra-contractual’ hours would make work after the pregnancy a net loss. (She was sternly talked to after this and had her over-the-contract hours cut within the month.) Standing up as an individual meant a loss of favour, and then a loss in your allotment of hours. What could be done?

Could you move schools and find a better one? Perhaps, but The Perfect School generally doesn’t have a lot of free teaching places. And it still has to compete in the unregulated Irish ELT market. That means competing with schools which pay hourly ‘contact-hour’ wages that possibly ten euro less per hour. In this way our government’s lack of regulation creates burnout employment for teachers, while allowing atrocious experiences to the ‘customers’. Complaints about weekly or daily teacher changes and lesson continuity are parried off by managers and owners. Is it really that the teachers aren’t reliable? Many of these teachers never had a written contract offered by the very school which scapegoats them as being unprofessional.

The snap closure of DSE, Dublin’s oldest private ELT school, in October 2016 illustrated two important points to teachers who have worked in ELT in Dublin, as we come up to 2017. Firstly that the ‘end’ of the College Closure Crisis in May 2015 did not mean any real change for the sector’s teachers or the implementation of any real sector-wide mandatory regulation. Schools stopped closing for a year but conditions did not improve for teachers. Secondly, being in a ‘good’ school with owners who smile at you and know your name is demonstrably not guarantee of healthy, long-term fair employment. Even with a permanent contract.

Front door of closed college DSE, revealing a map directing students to their office on the other side of Stephen's Green.

The last home of DSE on Harcourt Street. Their friendly memorable bird-branded door front door is still open in this photo.

DSE was fully approved and a member of the school owners’ marketing association for years. Many teachers had decade old links to the school and its staff. When they closed last autumn, the teachers were given less than a day’s notice and some took a 40% pay cut to start working at a different ELT school the next week. Why would they accept that? Because teachers have parents and children to support and the unregulated sector has no pay agreements. As a result wages vary tremendously with no agreement on what your qualifications or experience are worth. Offers are take-it-or-leave-it. There are as many skilled experienced teachers as ‘newbies’. Hiring managers often prefer teachers with less experience. They keep labour costs down and look better in the marketing materials.

The competitive sector means that quality can and does come second, despite the sales brochure boasts about quality, excellence, and success. Ask how a school’s newest teachers are hired, paid and contracted and you will find a language school’s real level of respect for basic principles of education. (Review Maslow’s Hierarchy) The resistance to, and continuing lack of, real regulation for teachers by owners and government means that quality and safety for students and teachers is still optional in 2017. It has been three years since the close those schools back in the spring of 2014. In Irish ELT it is still caveat emptor. Buyer, beware.

We are the buyers too: not just the student customer. Teachers ‘buy into’ the idea that their employer will take care of them if they keep their heads down and follow company culture and work the extra unpaid hours. We know now the facts just don’t bear that out in the Irish ELT sector. And the regulations aren’t there for teachers.

How do we get them there? How do teachers get a real elected voice at the table writing the regulations for our sector?

We grow. We talk together. We organize together.

We are ELT. This is our profession. We are a world-class ELT destination because of the teachers, writers and managers, and despite the abusive employment practices which have seen actual wages decline noticeably since the 1990s. The International Education Mark legislation which is currently being discussed in the Dáil has not yet become law.

The future of ELT in Ireland is not a foregone conclusion and you can help shape it. The government says that employment standards are a matter for the language school and the teacher. Yet these proposed regulations will dictate the minimum standards for the physical spaces in which we work. Why can it not dictate minimum standards of employment terms and conditions for which we work? This legislation will affect your working life, yet the education minister refuses to meet our union representatives. Why have MEI or the Department of Education not sought to work closely with teachers in relation to this legislation? This is part of the task of ELT Advocacy Ireland: making teachers’ voices heard in places where it counts.

Since that meeting in 2015, some of those teachers have left the ELT sector, some with joy, some with frustration. That founding ex-DOS has left too. But most have remained. And now we who do remain have an organization which we continue to shape through talk and action. It represents teachers and says that English language teaching is work. We have learned that it is worthwhile to organize ourselves around that simple idea. We believe we should hold our own discussions, work out our own views and solutions to issues which affect us in our workplaces across the Irish ELT sector and in our professional lives. For us, a lot depends on our work as English language teachers. But in turn, we depend on how ELT is perceived across Ireland, in the government, in our workplaces, and most importantly in teachers’ own attitudes. Is it a career worth taking seriously? Can you see yourself doing this long term, if conditions were better? Are you willing to join the conversation? Will you help to improve our sector for ourselves, our students and future generations of teachers?

Join us on our Facebook page and let’s talk about the issues that are important to you. Send us a private message and we can publish anonymously. Whether you work in ELT or have experienced work in ELT, your views matter and your support counts. Follow us on Twitter and help us make ELT in Ireland work for its teachers. And join the union to be active in making things change.

There’s lots more to discuss:

You have a story, too. And we need to hear it. You have a view and we need to see it. The Lives of Teachers are major impact factors on education quality.

So this is our space online. Use it and write. Your story matters.

ELT Advocacy Ireland has been ‘a thing’ for all English Language Teachers since that meeting in March 2015. We’ve only just started this blog. Comments on the FB page please. Submissions to eltadvocacy@gmail.com