An online English school offering courses and clubs, the Red Brick Language School platform co-op is being developed to give EFL (English as a foreign language) teachers and students a fairer deal.
The school is the brainchild of teachers Bernie Kennedy and Lucy Stephens who, while furloughed during Covid‑19 pandemic, decided to create a better business model for everyone involved.
"After working for private language schools for more than 20 years, I was frustrated with the treatment of teachers and students,” said Bernie. “Teachers face the increasing casualisation of working conditions, with zero hour or rolling contracts, no sick pay or adequate pension provision becoming the norm."
"And the business model of most private language schools does not serve students well. They frequently assign students to classes based on business considerations and not because they meet their needs."
Bernie and Lucy have been working for over a year to develop a teacher owned collective.
Their goal is to create an online community where teachers are valued, paid, treated and supported fairly – and where students are listened to and taught with their best interests at heart.
"I had wanted to start an English Language school as a worker collective for a long time and during the first lockdown I realised that a platform English school was the way to go – online learning was no longer only for the tech savvy," Bernie recalls.
“I also realised that a platform would allow us to offer courses that really meet students’ needs and are cheaper and more flexible, based on pedagogy not profit.”
Bernie and Lucy have been able to set up their co‑operative thanks to help from the UnFound Accelerator – a 10-week business development programme for fledgling co‑ops that use mobile apps or online platforms to provide services and solutions.
Delivered by Co‑operatives UK – in partnership with Stir to Action and support by The Co-operative Bank – the programme draws on an extensive network of experts to help platform co‑ops plan their businesses and develop their products, strategy, branding and marketing.
"At the start of the process, we knew very little about co‑ops and the scope that our idea could have. Our plans have grown as we have learnt more about working co‑operatively," said Lucy.
"We’ve also learned we can do much more than teach – we had never even thought about what’s involved with accounts, social media, law, the list goes on. Another important thing we’ve learned during the accelerator has been how to make the website work for the students."
The Unfound Accelerator culminated in a live pitching event where teams competed for a share in a £10,000 prize fund provided by The Co‑operative Bank.
Red Brick Language School received the most votes and won £2,795 to support them in the next steps of developing their platform co‑op.
"Red Brick Language School will be a teacher-run collective. Ultimately, we would also like to offer students membership of the collective. We are currently exploring ways to do this,” Lucy said."
"Being a co‑operative definitely makes us feel more resilient. We realise the benefits of the co‑operative model is not just about workers owning the business and not being exploited."
"From our experience, staff turnover in the EFL industry is extremely high. Being a co‑operative, this should not be a problem for us, which will benefit the teachers, the students and the business."