“I am thinking about setting up my own school. Would this be an act of utter folly or an amazing experience, or both?”
It was just a note pinned to a door in the High Street on a dusty summer day in Tuscany; in a small town by the sea. But it was written in English. How many people would have been stopped in their tracks by a note like that? Only me, I think. A not so young English language teacher far from home, but rather liking being there.
“I could buy myself a job for life” was one thought. “This is a passport to bankruptcy” was the other. And this was the extent of my knowledge of business. Thirty years later both thoughts still wake me in the morning.
Owning a school: a way of life, not a business
In a sense, however, the job for life has come true except that when you own a business it turns out not to be a job that you have bought but a way of life. Proof of this is that it’s not really something that you can retire from.
And the bankruptcy? Living in Italy there just seems no way to avoid the risk. Not because it’s Italy but just because you know that should disaster happen you, an Englishman, do not have the right connections to save you. The community will not lift a finger because you are not one of their sons. No doubt the judge will be fair should disaster happen, but fairness is not what you will need. You will need a helping hand.
Actually, running a language school seems to me to be an extraordinarily difficult business, as businesses go, I mean compared to other small businesses such as restaurants or shops or pubs etc. The first problem is that your professional advisors, (your accountant, your bank manager, your labour consultant, your lawyer etc.) have no idea what you are talking about. In theory the business may seem simple. You need a teacher, a classroom and students who pay. But in practice….
Let’s take the teacher. The labour consultant who will prepare a legal way of paying the teacher has never heard of the system used in language schools; the ‘monte ore’ system. It is a sort of obscene mystery. This system allows a teacher to work a certain number of hours in the year but every week can be different. 1,196 hours a year, but from 0 to 30 in any one week. Our consultant took years to fathom it out and we just have to hope that the taxman will never ask.
And how can I explain to teachers that the law insists that they cannot receive their full salary at the end of the month. Part of their salary has to be kept back to cover their 13th. month which will be handed over in mid December. Another part has to be kept back until they leave; one month salary for every year they have worked. Another part is held back for that pension they will never see, and then there are the ‘contributi’ for this and that. In the end only 50% of the salary arrives in the hand. “But I want it all now! I need it to pay the rent” my teachers wail. Because they are not Italians. Italians have mums and dads and grandparents who help out. More often than not they do more than help out. For Grandad, after 40 years working, earning perhaps an average 2,000 euros a month, a handsome pension comes together with a golden handshake, 80,000 euros cash in hand (one month salary for every year worked) every penny paid by the company. ‘Let’s put the money toward a flat for the grandson/daughter’ is often the first thought. It’s a great system if you have a family of at least three generations. But my teachers are English, American, Australian……and they don’t.
And the students?
They are usually super people, and really nice kids and so it’s a pleasure to work with them. But Italy has a summer. Summer starts mid June and finishes mid September. Holiday time! But you still have classrooms and teachers to pay. My first summer I took over the school at the beginning of July. How stupid can one be! At least one teacher I paid a salary for July, August and September but then he left and so I never met him; at least not until some years later under much happier circumstances.
But what about the money? Surely being in business means that you get at the money. Strangely, you don’t. Money rolls into the bank and then rolls out, but you don’t actually see it or touch it. The job is simply to make sure that more money rolls in than rolls out and this is a pretty hit or miss affair. Profit is almost impossible in the language teaching business because most teachers and schools work in the black or at best the grey. For some reason intellectuals who work in the black (teachers, professors etc.) are considered exempt from moral judgement. And so your prices have to take note of this unwelcome competition.
But even if your bank account does begin to have a decent amount of money in it there is no point in gloating. Take the arrival of Covid, for example. Any extra money that you had was wiped out in a flash, just those first two months and then the borrowing starts again. The classrooms are still there, the teachers are still there, and they have to be paid for. Only the students are missing.
Don’t do it!
30 years later what can be said? Of course Covid finished and we survived. But, as I said, it was a pretty hit or miss affair. No we’re up against AI, so from the money point of view “Don’t do it” …..
But really, ‘don’t do it’ unless you have those three solid generations of parents, grandparents and great grandparents watching over you.
Unless, of course, you are a born businessman or businesswoman. But would any born businessman or businesswoman have been stopped in their tracks by that tattered note, written in English, pinned clumsily to a door in a High Street on that dusty summer day?
John Ayers holds a B.A. in Theology from Durham University, and a Diploma in Education from Cambridge University. He began his teaching career at a secondary school in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, followed by three years working on a project twinning British and American State schools. From 1970 to 1990 he worked in the field of Fine Art and Antiques, based in Livorno (Italy) but travelling between Milan, Paris and London. Since 1986 he has been the Owner, Director and Teacher with the group British School Pisa srl. At various times the group of schools included British School Livorno, Cecina, Pontedera, Lucca, Viareggio, Montacchiello, and Pisa. In 1990 he was a founder member and vice President of AIBSE (Associazione Internazionale British Schools of English), and from 1992 to 1998 he was President of SEAL Italy (Society for Effective Affective Learning).