Today I want to talk about money in ELT. Specifically, money in UK ELT. And more specifically than that, money in the Edinburgh private language school market.
In short. It’s a bit shit.
Now, that isn’t necessarily surprising. Not to me, anyway. I’ve been working in ELT in the UK since 2015 and I’ve yet to hit over £20k a year, despite working more than one gig at a time. The difference for me now is that I’m really pissed off about it.
April is the start/end of the tax year in the UK so I had the pleasure of receiving my P60 end of year statement, which stated exactly how much I’ve earned over the last tax year from my principal employer (I am also self-employed and have been, in varying capacities, since 2016). Last year, I earned £16,175.60. Due to seasonal fluctuations and some reduced hours around Delta deadlines, my average take home each month was £1,347.97.
For context, the average salary in Edinburgh, according to payscale.com is over £28,000 a year. Some sites have it as a little lower. From what I can gather, teachers in the state school sector are on or above this, although I know their working hours are often bloody crazy. According to home.co.uk, the average rent for a one-bedroom flat in the city is £986 pcm. On top of this you have council tax, bills, internet, Netflix, etc. etc.
Now, from time to time (my partner would perhaps say ‘every weekend without fail’), I panic about money. £1,347.97 is enough to live on, and I have no trouble budgeting for the bills, the food, and a couple of coffees/dinner out. (I recognise that having no children/dependents and a second income from my partner means I’ve got it way easier than many others in my position).
But then a hole appears in a pair of jeans (why don’t designers reinforce the crotch in women’s trousers!!??), and then another pair falls apart a couple of weeks later and suddenly I actually need to go shopping. That half-formed thought of getting a pair of quality jeans, maybe Levis, that’ll last longer flies out of the window because I need 2 pairs, now, and that would be £170, so instead I go to M&S and get jeans that, sure, I like, but I know the quality isn’t great. I buy a third pair in the hope this will stave off the panic next time they break, or will help them last longer because they’ll be on a bigger rotation, with less frequent washing.
OK, jeans crisis over.
But now there’s a wedding, and I don’t have any wedding clothes I feel comfortable in and it’s quite an important wedding (in Korea – don’t let’s get started on flights) with my in-laws – I need to make a good impression. So that’s £150 on a new suit and shoes.
And shit – my printer’s not responding to the new ink cartridge. The internet is trying to explain a complicated sensor cleaning process which seems not to include instructions on how to take the bloody machine apart. Quick google of new printers (goodbye newly purchased ink cartridges) – minimum £40 and they have bad reviews. Hmmm, how long can I sneakily do printing at work? I’ll reduce it to essentials.
What’s that? The two-year anniversary of moving into this flat? Perfect, just the right time for all the insurances to renew, and for the letting agency to raise the price of rent.
You get my point. £1,347.97 is enough to live on – but it doesn’t allow much breathing space for when unexpected things turn up. Nor does it allow for much significant saving in the easy months. This is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a bitch for one’s mental health. I’m lucky in that I escaped the zero-hour contract game almost two years ago, but to be honest, that anxiety is still there, constantly running in the background. Now add on the fact that this sort of money doesn’t allow me to save a deposit to buy a house, or get any kind of decent mortgage offer (for absolute openness – we will be relying on our parents for our deposit in any case – who the hell can save £25,000 minimum? But it would be nice to feel I could contribute a little).
A slap in the face
Now, despite having spent the last 500 words on money worries, that isn’t actually what I wanted to write about. For me, the absolute worst part of this situation, and the reason I’ve distanced myself from ELT Twitter, and non-stop googled career changes over the past few weeks is just how insulting it is.
Before I continue, I feel I should say that the school I work for is a fantastic place to work in many respects. My colleagues are amazing and the DoS is really supportive, an excellent demand-high kind of boss who has really helped reform the teaching in our school. But it can be disheartening to see how little our work is valued in cold numbers.
My contract is 15 hours per week although I almost always work 22.5. As discussed many times on twitter, this is about most people’s max. Maybe 25/26. Any more and the standards start slipping, corners are cut, etc. English Teachers in Scotland calculated at a recent meeting that, once you include everything from marking students’ work, discussing progress, dealing with questions after class, chatting with colleague’s about problems with shared students, planning the lessons themselves, liaising with colleagues about said plans, sourcing materials, photocopying materials, attending meetings, arguing with your DoS about potential level changes for students, and much much more, there’s about an extra half an hour of work for every hour of contact time. So a 25-hour teaching week is equivalent to a 37.5-hour week.
In other words, full-time.
Full-time teaching. A job which demands an undergraduate degree and a 4-week CELTA. A job which desires (for their own external inspections, not just a fuzzy feeling), Diplomas and Masters. £16,175.60 a year. What a f*&%ing joke.
And this is normal. This is the standard, average, typical situation for ELT teachers in private language schools in the UK.
So what can be done? There a few ‘solutions’ that have been proposed to me personally by friends and colleagues.
The first: go into business. Find a niche in the market, set up your own school, launch a language learning app, go freelance and develop a portfolio of only exclusive and high-end investment bankers as clients.
This is fine, I guess. In terms of setting up schools, it’s what many people have done in Edinburgh and it may have oversaturated the market, but I am happy that we are not dominated by the Kaplans and the Wall Street Englishes of the world. Personally, being employed by an owner of a smallish independent language school was the best employment experience I’ve ever had: real respect, real pay, real autonomy. But it’s not the same everywhere, and with lots of language schools just getting by, the argument against raising wages is made even stronger. Instead, I could specialise in BE and get high-flying clients, but it’s not really ‘me’. I’m not sure I’d enjoy that as much as a language-school environment. It’s also a risk, financially, to leave the relative security of a contract (however measly).
The second solution: leave ELT. If you hate it so much, get another job. Retrain. Someone else will fill your role, you’re not irreplaceable. Just go. And stop complaining.
And this is the bit that really pisses me off, because this is what the system relies on and exploits: I don’t want to leave. I love my job. I love teaching English to adults from a variety of countries, all in one room. It’s fun. And I’m good at it (when I’m not overworked and underpaid). Looking around at career changes, I don’t see anything I would like as much as this. Of course there are other good jobs out there, but there are also loads of people who hate their jobs and dread Monday mornings. That’s not me and I don’t want to leave a job I love for better money, even if it might come to that if nothing changes.
And besides, the problem remains with both these solutions. It might not be me personally earning £16,175.60 a year, but it will be someone.
So, all in all, I’ve got no idea what the solution is. I’m not sure if the problem needs to be fixed at an industry-wide ELT level, or a national anti-zero-hour-contracts level. Ideally both. There definitely needs to be an attitude shift. This can come from advocacy groups like ELT Advocacy, ELT Manchester and the newly-formed English Teachers in Scotland group. Teachers who are new to the UK need to know what is shit pay and what is simply insulting. But past the question of “are we being paid the minimum wage?”, I’m not sure how to fight for pay which reflects the legitimacy of ELT as a profession. This is an even bigger problem, which has ties, I think, to the phenomenon of backpacker teachers and lowest-common-denominator teaching ‘methodologies’ being sold as effective teacher training.
All I know is that I’ve set myself a personal time limit: I have one year left of my delta-debt to my current school. So I have one year to try to carve out some new directions; will it be new direction in ELT or a new profession altogether? I’m not sure yet, but something has to give.