Sector faces ‘devastation’ by Brexit red tape and from pandemic
Language schools for foreign students are being “devastated” by a combination of post-Brexit red tape and the impact of the pandemic, threatening the future of a £3.2bn industry, tourism leaders have warned.
A report by the Tourism Alliance said even though the government had ended Covid travel measures, ministers had imposed unnecessary restrictions on children from France, Germany and other EU nations.
That has prompted a collapse in school group bookings and an estimated 80% drop in revenue across the industry this year, threatening 40,000 jobs, the Tourism Alliance said.
Until 2021, more than 1.5 million children came to the UK each year to study English or on organised school trips, accounting for about 11% of total annual tourism earnings.
Before Brexit, groups of children could travel using identity cards under the List of Travellers scheme.
Now, every child must have a passport, and children with non-EU passports – including refugees – also need a £95 visa. Schools are opting to go to Ireland or Malta for English language trips, or not travelling at all.
Kurt Janson, the director of the Tourism Alliance, said the passport requirement was having “a devastating impact on a large number of small businesses and local communities”.
“The collapse in the school group market is unnecessary as schoolchildren present no security risk, will not disappear into the black economy and start driving minicabs, and parents who let their children go on school trips are generally quite keen for their teachers to bring them back home.
“This is an obvious situation where the government needs to set aside its dogma on passports and work with the industry to find a practical solution.”
Many language schools are concentrated in seaside towns on the south coast of England. In Hastings, the council says only seven of its 20 language schools and tour operators are confirmed to be still running.
One is Senlac Tours, which usually brings about 15,000 children, mostly from Berlin, to Hastings each year. They stay with local families, learn English and visit British cultural destinations.
“We haven’t had any groups since March 2020,” said Nicole Taggeb, the executive manager. Many staff have been laid off.
“Had it not been for our boss, putting money aside, selling her home, selling the office and supporting the company like that, we might not have survived,” she said. “We’re just hoping to get back to some sort of turnover.
“First we had Brexit, then Covid, and now the war in Ukraine – it’s another nail.”
The firm’s first group since Covid is due to arrive from Germany by coach this month. Covid restrictions in European countries make things more complex, but the passport requirement has put off many parents.
“It costs about €450 per child,” Taggeb said. “Now it would be another €100.” Many don’t even consider travelling any more – not all Germans have passports and about 15% of schoolchildren in Germany are nationals of other countries.
About 22% of jobs in the town – 7,030 – are supported by tourism, according to Hastings borough council.
“We think language schools are worth £35m to the local economy,” said Kevin Boorman, the council’s marketing manager.
“People elsewhere don’t understand that Hastings is the most deprived town in south-east England. The loss of students has an impact on the whole town. We know Hastings is improving and the tourism industry provides entry-level jobs. To lose language students is a massive blow to every generation.”
Huan Japes, membership director of English UK, the trade body for language schools, said 15% of members had closed permanently. “There’s another 15% that are not certain if they’ll see out the year,” he said. “We could be seeing a 30% loss across the country.”