How to start up a language school

Multiple students in a classroom writing in their notepads

Language schools teach English to foreign students and schools with students from all over the world are more heavily regulated than those with only EU students. Our guide covers the key issues for starting and running your own language school.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

You will need to make an estimate of the number of students who will attend your school over the course of the year. It can be easier to break this down into weekly or monthly totals when you are doing your calculations.

A good place to start is to first find out whether there is room in your area for another English language school. There's a number of ways that you can do this, such as:

  • searching the online directory of English UK's 450 or so members, of which around 350 are private sector schools. Search results can be filtered by UK region. (Around 70% of all private language schools in the UK are members of English UK). The smaller Accreditation Body for Language Services also includes member details on its website. Both of these associations are aimed primarily at private language schools and their members must be accredited by a Home Office approved accreditation scheme
  • searching the online directory of the British Accreditation Council's approved institutions. The British Accreditation Council accredits around 230 colleges and other independent providers of further and higher education, including short course providers
  • searching the online directory of the Accreditation Service for International Schools, Colleges and Universities, which has around 110 accredited colleges
  • browsing on and other similar online or print directories

Although private language schools are likely to be your closest competitors, it makes sense to include colleges and universities as well when you do your research to build up as comprehensive a picture as possible of English language provision in your area.

Once you have made a count of the number of local competitors, it will be useful for you to get an idea of how they operate. Look online for individual schools' websites or ask them to send you their promotional brochures.

After you've established the number of direct competitors and some of their operating practices, it's a good idea to try to find out the number of foreign visitors that come to your area for the purpose of study from your target countries. Your local and national tourist boards may be able to help you with this and the government's 'Travelpac' survey - which you can download from the ONS website - might also be useful. Tourist boards may also be able to give you a monthly breakdown of the number of foreign visitors that come specifically to study English, which you can use to estimate when your busiest and quietest times will be. English UK produces a useful publication called 'Regional breakdown of the value of the ELT industry in the UK' that includes an estimate of student weeks and their value by region and by town/city. You may find that this is something that language travel agents can help you with as well. The trade journal Study Travel Magazine published by Hothouse Media carries out a great deal of research into the English language teaching sector and each monthly issue includes a Regional Focus article, which may prove useful if your area is featured.

Remember, if there aren't any language schools operating locally this may be an indication that insufficient numbers of foreign visitors come to your area and that there isn't any demand for a school. You may wish to check with your tourist board to see how well your area is advertised abroad.

Why will students choose your school

You need to make sure that enough people choose to come to your school rather than going to one of your competitors. Once you have completed your review of the range of courses offered by your competitors and the prices that they charge for them, you will hopefully have a good idea how to make your school attractive to prospective students. You may decide to:

  • package your courses in a way that is completely new
  • offer the same types of course but hope to attract students by undercutting your competitors' prices
  • focus more on the quality of service offered, so giving you the opportunity to charge higher fees
  • use the services of language travel agents
  • focus a lot of your efforts on marketing your school, perhaps by targeting students from emerging markets. A well-focused social media strategy can also play an important part in attracting students, in particular those in their teens and early twenties

Remember that, while any school can take students from within the EU, to be able to take those from outside the EU a school must either be a licensed Tier 4 Sponsor and accredited by a public body such as the Independent Schools Inspectorate or be accredited by a private organisation like Accreditation UK.

Tier 4 Sponsors can take students from outside the EU that require a Tier 4 general visitor visa to enter the UK but privately accredited schools can only take non-EU students travelling on a short term student visa on courses of up to 11 months. Both can offer courses of no more than six weeks duration (30 days of study) to students who are travelling to the UK on a general or business visa, as long as the study is incidental to the main purpose of their visit. The study can be a single six-week block or split into weekly sessions.

Find out what people want

Finding out what courses and services that your prospective customers want can be a time-consuming and relatively complex task. Some of the things that you could try are:

  • attending language fairs and exhibitions. Remember that due to the international nature of the EFL sector, the main fairs are often abroad and can be expensive to attend
  • contacting language travel agents. As it is in their interests to build profitable partnerships with language schools, you may find that agents will help you with your queries
  • contacting professional associations
  • asking your local tourist board which attractions are the most popular with foreign tourists so that you could incorporate them into your EFL packages

Trade sales

It is possible that you may be able to negotiate deals with large foreign organisations that are based in your area. This type of firm may well require English tuition for its executives.

If you plan to target this type of client, try to make a count of likely organisations in your area. You could do this by either looking in the Yellow Pages or local telephone directory or by driving around your local area and counting. This type of firm is often located in an out-of-town industrial trading park. You could then send them a publicity brochure detailing your services and your prices and any special offers that you are considering. Remember, the emphasis should be on Business English courses. You may also consider sending a short questionnaire along the lines of the one included at Record Sheet 3. It is worth including a stamped, self-addressed envelope to increase the chance of getting replies.

Remember, if these firms already send their employees to a language school, they are likely to need a good reason for switching to your school.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Customer profile

Your market

To attract sufficient student numbers you may find that you have to cater for all age groups. If this is the case, your students will probably include some or all of the following:

  • children
  • young adults
  • business people of varying age and seniority
  • retired people
  • tourists of all ages

Estimating the average weekly income

When calculating your probable average weekly income, you will need to take into account the estimated number of students that your school will attract and multiply that number by the average fee that you will charge.

Number of students

When calculating the number of students there are a few things that you will have to take into account. These are:

  • the pre-set maximum class size. It is usual for schools to set an upper limit on the number of students in a class. This may be between 10 and 15 students
  • the number of classrooms in your school
  • the number of hours of tuition per week required for each course
  • the total amount, in hours, of teaching that each of your classrooms can cope with in a week. This is usually around 46 hours

It is likely that you will only attract the maximum number of students for some weeks in the year, for example in the summer months. You may need to take this into account when you are estimating your weekly income from course fees.

Course fees

You should already have some idea of the prices that you are going to charge for your courses, so you should now try to estimate how many students will take each course. Once you have done this you should be able to work out your total weekly income from course fees.

Don't forget, if - as is likely - a certain percentage of your students come via language travel agents you will only receive, say, 80% of your total course fee with the rest paid as commission to the agent.

Other income

You may also receive income from sources other than course fees such as:

  • enrolments
  • commission on social events
  • commission from arranging accommodation

Advertising your business

Whoever your customers will be, it is essential that they get to know about you. As a language school does not get a significant amount of passing trade, if any at all, it is important that you ensure that your school is as widely known as possible by using different forms of advertising and promotion, such as:

  • creating your own website, blog or social media profile
  • joining a professional association and/or becoming accredited - to be able to accept students from outside the EU, your school needs to be accredited by either a public body (this will allow you to accept non-EU students travelling on a Tier 4 general visitor visa or a short term student visa) or an approved private body (this allows you only to accept students travelling on a short term student visa who are staying in the UK for no longer than 11 months). EU students don't require a visa to study in the UK. To be able to join English UK (the main professional association) or the Accreditation Body for Language Services, you must be accredited by a Home Office approved accreditation scheme. Once you're a member, your details will be included in their online directories
  • having a promotional brochure printed that can be sent to people who request it or downloaded from your website
  • having a promotional film made - this could also be hosted on your website or through social media like Youtube or Instagram
  • making links with language travel agents
  • doing a mail shot of any companies in your area that you feel could use your services
  • advertising in trade magazines

Decide which courses to offer

The primary objective of a student taking a language course is the ability to speak English at the end of it. The level of fluency achieved will depend on the length and type of course taken. Short duration courses may concentrate on giving the student adequate conversation skills whereas longer courses may focus more on grammar. You may find that you need to provide courses of all lengths to meet demand. These courses may be:

  • general English
  • general English with business English
  • short immersion courses for executives
  • examination courses leading to a certificate from an examining body
  • full academic year courses
  • vacation courses
  • one-on-one tuition
  • teachers' courses
  • pre-sessional courses aimed at overseas students wishing to study for a degree in the UK but who don't have the required level of English

You may also want to provide a social programme. This could include:

  • visits to pubs and restaurants
  • trips to sporting events
  • trips to museums and galleries
  • walking tours
  • golf
  • visits to tourist attractions
  • visits to theme parks and fun fairs

Your social programme will depend on what is available in your area. Remember to tailor your social programme to your target market; a group of businessmen would be more likely to enjoy golf or cultural events than a trip to a fun fair!

Price your services

You will generally ask your customers to pay a deposit when they send you their enrolment forms.

It is accepted practice to ask for the balance on the total due before the student starts the course, especially if the course is relatively short in length. For students taking longer courses, you may offer them the opportunity to pay in instalments if they find that more convenient.

Where students stay in accommodation arranged through the school, it's usual for them to pay you in advance the total amount due for their accommodation and then for you to pay the accommodation provider at fortnightly or monthly intervals.

Special offers and discounts

You may decide to offer discounts or special deals. The benefit of this can be a surge in interest in courses, so you may consider offering these at times of the year when demand for courses is lower.

You could also offer discounts on longer courses (say, over 10 weeks) as long as the full payment is made in advance.

Remember, if - as is likely - you use language travel agents, the terms of your agreements with them will usually state that you will have to make the same special offers and discounts available to them. You will also generally have to pay the agents their regular rate of commission on sales of discounted courses.

Language travel agents

It's very likely you'll use the services of language travel agents as a way of filling course places. The percentage of a school's bookings arranged through an agent can be as high as 80% and on average is usually around 40%-50%. You will pay the agent a commission on each booking made; the rate is usually somewhere between 15% and 30% depending on the terms of your agreement. You may want to offer a higher rate of commission for large volume bookings.

Generally, agents will pay you the amount due after having deducted their commission. You will usually receive payment before the arrival of the student.

Accreditation UK

The Accreditation UK scheme, which is overseen by the British Council and English UK, was set up to give an assurance of quality to students attending language schools in the UK. Accreditation UK is the accreditation scheme adopted by the majority of accredited language schools in the UK. Following changes to the visa system in 2011, schools that are only accredited by a private body like Accreditation UK can no longer take students that need a Tier 4 general visitor visa to enter the UK - a school must be accredited by a public body like the Independent Schools Inspectorate to be able to do this. However, private accreditation by an approved body remains one of the ways in which a school can take non-EU students travelling on a short term student visa or people travelling on a general or business visa studying for up to six weeks, where the study is incidental to the main purpose of their visit.

The English UK and British Council websites provide details of the Accreditation UK scheme.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing farm supply business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the courses, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

  • the school is already a licensed Tier 4 Sponsor and has been inspected and accredited by a statutory body such as the Independent Schools Inspectorate so can accept non-EU students that require a Tier 4 general visitor visa. Alternatively, the school may be accredited by an approved private body such as Accreditation UK, which means that it can take non-EU students travelling under a short term student visa. (Both licensed sponsors and approved privately accredited schools can also offer courses of no more than six weeks duration (30 days of study) to students who are travelling to the UK on a general or business visa, as long as the study is incidental to the main purpose of their visit)
  • the school is already participating in a promotional network like Quality English
  • there are established relationships with agents, students, homestay and other accommodation providers
  • there are advance bookings in place so the business can generate income immediately

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.