Scandalous schools: Private language schools and how they bend the rules


By Will Holmes, Travel Digital Editor

It may seem like the perfect opportunity to spend long periods of time abroad, but there are perils to English teaching jobs. What are they and how can they be avoided?  

Teaching abroad is popular amongst students, whether you are embarking upon a year abroad or just working during the summer. Normally these jobs offer a decent salary, an authentic opportunity to explore abroad and a great way of develop key skills - regardless of whether you want to be a teacher or not. Short-term, easily attainable and rife with adventure, teaching abroad seems like a no-brainer for university students.

Unsplash / Angela Litvin
These private language schools are often happy to leave their employees stranded and do not comply with the law readily." - Anonymous student

However, the increasing amount of positions - such as TEFL jobs - have left many teachers vulnerable. The student 'backpacker teacher' is employed all-too-often without a proper contract by private language schools, who bend the employment laws in their countries. This means teachers can often be exposed to discrimination, poor or unfair pay, and unstable employment.

One student told us that whilst working at a private language school in Italy, with a 'work agreement' for a 35 hour week instead of an official contract, they worked around 50 hours per week without overtime pay. However, they considered themselves lucky, as a fellow employee was sacked without any notice or reason for their sudden dismissal, saying: 'These private language schools are often happy to leave their employees stranded and do not comply with the law readily. Where I was working, their vehicles were uninsured, and employees were paid in cash and labelled on official documentation as volunteers.'

A graduate working as an English teacher in Spain noted similar trends: 'Lots of language schools especially in Europe seem to love playing games with the taxman. Where I work for example a good portion is paid in cash and is undeclared. This is a common practice to the point where language schools who are above board will adversities themselves as so because it’s such a novelty.'

The same student also told Epigram that she currently has no official contract. Whilst being a teacher abroad is 'quite an unstable job', native English speakers are in high demand with employment opportunities 'pretty much anywhere you want!'.

It has become clear that these cases are not rare exceptions. There are now multitudes of grassroots unions trying to protect teachers from unreliable employment. Amongst them are Teachers as Workers, TEFL Equality Advocates, Gender Equality in ELT and the TEFL Workers’ Union - to name but a few. They aim to prevent any form of malpractice in language schools and ensure that teachers do not experience poor working conditions or discrimination in these short-term jobs.

"...Teachers can often be exposed to discrimination, poor or unfair pay, and unstable employment." - Will Holmes

A spokesperson for the TEFL Workers’ Union explained: 'Our members are often on the receiving end of similar malpractice: woefully inadequate contracts, zero-hours arrangements, bogus self-employment, and employers who have no concern for legal protections or due process. For too long, language schools have avoided scrutiny and have gotten away with breaking the law.'

Here are Epigram Travel’s top tips for making sure you teach abroad in a protected and legal environment:
• Get a proper contract and read it
• Know your local employment law (minimum wage etc)
• Know your value in the teaching market (will vary depending on where you are, but ensure that you are paid an average teacher’s salary)

Feature image: Unsplash / Alexandr Podvalny

Have you ever taught English abroad? Share your experience with us!


Will Holmes

Digital Travel Editor | Former Editor of SPA award-winning publication La Civetta | Case Law Editor for The Student Lawyer | Digital Content Executive for LittleLaw