English language school sector brought ‘to its knees’

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 April, 2021 at 10:18 am by Andre Camilleri

The news that English Language Teaching (ELT) schools will need to remain closed has brought the sector “to its knees”, the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisations Malta (FELTOM) has said.

While Maltese schools will start reopening their doors from today, English language schools have been ordered to remain closed for the foreseeable future and continue with online teaching. Today, on 12 April, childcare centres, kindergartens, and primary schools will open.  Two days later – on Wednesday 14 April – middle schools will open, and on Friday 16 April, secondary schools (from Form 3 to Form 5) will open their doors.

This newsroom spoke to Caroline Tissot, the Designate CEO at FELTOM, to understand how English language schools in Malta have been affected by the news that they would need to remain closed and how the significant drop in students since the start of the pandemic has affected teaching staff, the economy and Malta’s tourism industry.

FELTOM had recently expressed its hopes in a statement that, in the interim, the industry will be given clear direction from the government and a vision of the way forward for ELT schools to implement meaningful survival plans. “The English foreign language industry is one of the most terribly hit industries in our country which has incurred terrible financial losses and support for schools is imperative if this industry is to survive,” FELTOM said.

Asked about the current state of ELT schools in Malta, Tissot said that last Wednesday’s “unexpected” announcement to keep English language school closed has “brought the industry to its knees”.

While English language schools have benefitted from the Covid wage supplement, allowing them to cover rent, water and electricity costs, the schools are in a state of financial crisis.

“We have to bear in mind that the schools are businesses which are in need of financial support”, she said. “The day-to-day running expenses of schools are accumulating; this, coupled with a ‘no end in sight’ scenario as to when the schools may reopen, may even lead to school closures”.

Last Thursday, the National Statistics Office (NSO) reported that 2020 saw an 80.3% drop in foreign students coming to Malta from the year before. 16,491 students attended local licensed ELT schools in 2020, whereas 2019 saw 83,610 students attending ELT schools.

Asked about how this drop in students has affected both teaching staff and non-teaching staff in ELT schools, Tissot said that ELT schools are trying as hard as possible to retain as many employees as they can.

“The government wage supplement has, in part, enabled this to happen”, she said.

The wage supplement, however, has not eradicated the unpredictability that looms over ELT schools’ employees.

“The extension of ELT school closures has instilled a sense of insecurity amongst many of our employees, resulting in a very real possibility of staff members leaving the industry in search of a more stable working environment”, Tissot said.

The drop in students has not only affected staff, but it has also shaken up Malta’s economy.

“As per the annual Deloitte report,” Tissot noted, “statistics for 2019 show that the ELT industry contributed to 8.6% of total tourist bed nights with a total spend amounting to approximately €200 million. Of course, the reduction in student numbers has negatively impacted this figure and we are hoping that with the imminent return to face-to -face teaching, the industry will once again be in a position to positively contribute once more to Malta’s economy”.

Tissot said that it is a mixture of this “financial burden” coupled with the uncertainty that employees face, that has posed the biggest challenge to ELT schools at the moment.

Inquiring further into the financial situation of English language schools, Tissot said that the schools are still struggling to cope despite still teaching students.

“Expenses are still incurred even though classes are taking place online”, she said.

And while students can fortunately continue learning English online, the physical absence of students in Malta has brought ELT programmes into doubt.

“The basis of the ELT industry is that students have the opportunity to learn by immersing themselves fully in their surroundings”, Tissot said. “However, the indefinite closure of schools has led to an increase in cancellations and postponements. Bookings decreased significantly resulting in a huge loss of revenue”.

What can we expect for the future of ELT schools?

Although the present situation is far from ideal, Tissot has hopes that the summer will be brighter for ELT schools. This is largely due to the Tourism Recovery plan, which will help local tourism industries to recover from the financial blow of the pandemic.

Minister for Tourism Clayton Bartolo announced that no less than 20 million euro will be invested in the plan and divided across a number of schemes and incentives which will aid, as Bartolo said, “the sector hit most by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Bartolo announced that a number of schemes will be launched in the coming weeks to target different aspects of local tourism – one of which will be dedicated specifically to ELT schools.

Asked about FELTOM’s predictions for summer, Tissot said that “the recently presented Tourism Recovery Plan for Summer 2021 by the Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the MTA, saw an increase in the number of interested parties”.

She added that Malta serving as “one of the top ELT destinations” will certainly draw in interested students to book educational trips this summer.

Malta also has the advantage that it is accessible to students and has plans to open its doors to students by the beginning of this coming June.

“With other top ELT destination like Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand being inaccessible to students, Malta has the opportunity to capitalise on this, once the authorities give the green light for our schools to open their doors”, she said.

Tissot also hinted at the possibility that FELTOM could work with the MTA to further promote Malta to interested students and “co-market our islands through the allocated funds for the reopening of tourism in Malta over the coming months”.

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