Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

What Summer Schools Get Wrong

Summer School is an immense undertaking. An entire functioning school, which usually has to be up and running in 24 hours, that combines Academic, Activities and Residential programs, often run by people new into the company or job role, and then made to disappear overnight once the last students go home.

It’s a wonder there are so many that make a success of it, excelling at their British Council inspections and achieving commendation by the ever watchful EL Gazette. It’s also not surprising so many mistakes are made – even by the good ones.



The success or failure of a school rests as much on hiring the right people as it does in the infrastructure. Hire too early and you end up with drop outs as summer nears. Hire too late and you’re left with staff that you wouldn’t have considered back when there was time to be picky.

Where you look is as important as when you look. An ad on might reach a lot of people but it’s also competing with all the other schools on there.


Offer returners’ bonuses to staff who come back year after year. It makes them feel appreciated and is saving you recruitment time.

Use social media to advertise positions and make it easy for potential staff who plan ahead to find you. Follow Facebook and Twitter groups of the kind of people you want to hire and use Linked In.

Seek out Activities staff who are on PE teaching or sports related courses at university. Not only are they committed and professionally minded, they are likely to be available for a few summers.

Recruit from CELTA courses ending in April, May, June. There’s too much emphasis on having experienced teachers when often those fresh off the CELTA are better at doing detailed planning and are less likely to just be in it for the money. Add in an experienced DOS and a few experienced teachers to balance out the team.

Incentivise former staff to recommend their friends – yes that means offering them money. After all it’s saving you time and effort.


Everyone knows what the standard answers are to questions like “How do you deal with conflicts at work?” or “What makes a good class for Younger Learners/Teens?” so you’re not going to be sorting the wheat from the naff like that. Also, is the candidate leaving the interview process with an accurate idea of what’s expected of them during the summer?


Give them scenarios and ask them what they’d do. Base them on actual incidents that have happened during previous summers. For managers, give them a task to do in a set time to weed out people with poor IT or organisational skills.

If submitting a full CELTA style lesson plan for every class or running dance club on Sunday afternoons or doing wake ups is part of the job, make sure that’s clear at interview so there’s no resentment of those duties once the job is underway. Don’t rely on them reading their contract/handbook as they will only be looking at the pay and number of weeks contracted.


Setting budgets that bear no relation to number of centres, opening new centres, changing the syllabus, length of bookings or, even worse, just plucking numbers out of thin air or aiming to halve last year’s spend isn’t budgeting, it’s just playing with random numbers. How can you say you’ve under or overspent if your figures were made up?


Estimate costs of setting up new centres and plan for buying books based on the number of classes you usually have at each level. Look at last year’s figures and see where petty cash was spent and plan accordingly. If things like memory sticks were needed last year, they’ll be needed again and can be bought in advance instead of a last minute £100 trip to the nearest supermarket (yes, I’ve seen that happen).

If your numbers are up but your bookings are all shorter than other years then each student will cost you more money. Consider offering enhanced services like airport transfers only with bookings of 2 weeks+ or only guaranteeing minimum airport waiting times for longer bookings. Offering a first class service and also putting cutting costs at the top of your behind-the-scenes agenda is incompatible.

Play around with the summer school concept. What would a no-frills summer school service look like? Is there a market for it? Is catering to the rich end of the clientele spectrum the future or not?

Staff will not be sympathetic to a constant refrain of “spend less”. In fact, it’s completely alienating. Often they might have ideas of how to cut costs though, since they operate at a different perspective to Head Office, so ask their opinion.

Working conditions

Many residential summer schools expect staff to work six days a week and are in locations from which there’s very little escape. Staff a’re also expected not to drink or be drunk onsite, not to smoke, to obey a curfew and often to share rooms. Shifts are long and, while pay can be generous and includes free food and board, as soon as anyone works out their hourly rate, they won’t see it like that.

The number of problems that come up for those reasons are so numerous I could write a post just about them. Fights on nights off, alcohol or drugs found onsite, staff drinking at the airport while on duty, overnight escapees or staff not coming back after their day off, a massive dip in attitude at the end of week 2 are just the basics.


Shorten shifts where possible. If early and late staff overlap in the middle of the day, cut some hours off the shift if you don’t really need them all present. For remote locations, organise transport at one set time on their day off to get staff to the nearest point of civilisation. Consider a rota of duties like wake ups so that not all staff who are technically “on” have to do it. Pay more. Staffing is your most critical spend after the host school facility.

Being in touch

Especially for schools with multiple centres, a “no news is good news” policy is asking for trouble. It’s easy for Head Office to lose touch with what the day to day running of a centre is like. If you hire people to do a good job, you can’t expect them to view that the same way you do at every point. If you’ve hired the right staff, they’re going to be far more motivated by keeping students happy than by admin and budget considerations however annoying that might be for you to accept.


Keep in touch with centres by phone or visit. Follow up on successes so that every communication from Head Office isn’t to issue instructions or chastise.

If it’s been more than two years – or never – since you did an actual summer job role at a centre, spend a week doing one of those positions on at least alternate years and then your decisions year round will be much better informed.

Consider offering prizes (which don’t have to be money) or running a  league table for things like frugal petty cash spending, successful airport transfers or getting admin tasks done. These can be interdepartmental if you only have single centres. Carrot over stick works better every time.


All this is gleaned from 6 years with a good school and 4 summers with a not-so-hot one. As Academic Consultant to Bede’s, I took them from nowhere in the rankings to 5th best in the UK, according to EL Gazette’s compilation of British Council points of excellence in 2013. It’s worth pointing out that one of the two centres that aced its inspection was the one I ran as Centre Director for 5 summers.

I’m available for consultancy to other schools, both in the UK and abroad and can help those with upcoming British Council inspections, those seeking Accreditation or anyone looking to expand or improve their operation.

Find me on Twitter @NicolaPrentis








2 comments on “What Summer Schools Get Wrong

  1. ven_vve
    August 22, 2014

    Hi Nicola,

    In your experience, what tends to be the stance summer schools take on employing NNESTs? I’ve been thinking of maybe applying next summer. Also, I assume all EU nationals are eligible…or do you have to be a UK citizen?

    I enjoyed your A-Z series!

    • Nicola
      August 22, 2014

      Hi, Good Question!
      I can only really speak for the one school I was at most recently, Bede’s, but I’d say NNS were hired if they were a good fit for the job and that is all that mattered. Of 7 centres, 3 had NNS as Academic Managers and the Senior Academic Manager was also a NNS. For teachers, I am not sure how many we had but quite a few.
      There’s no need to be a UK citizen, or even an EU citizen – as long as the applicant has the legal right to work in the UK. To be honest, the demand is so high during the summer that I doubt NNS are discriminated against and it wouldn’t be legal in the UK to do so. I’ve never heard even a suggestion that schools I’ve worked for in the UK (summer or year round) have even an unspoken policy against NNS.
      So apply! 🙂

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