"EVEN before Brexit was official we were suffering the consequences of it. It was just like one great big negative PR for the UK.”

Claire Hunter, the principal of the Basil Paterson Edinburgh School of English, has seen first hand the ­devastating impact the past few years has had on the city’s English teaching industry.

Once one of the UK’s major hubs for the youth, student and ­educational travel market, which the ­Tourism ­Alliance valued at £27 ­billion, ­Edinburgh’s industry has seen a ­dramatic decline.

The 14 British Council-accredited English language schools in ­operation “before Brexit was official” now ­number just six. That decline can’t be ascribed to Brexit alone, as Covid ­ravaged the industry.

The pandemic’s outbreak in 2020 saw an “unprecedented” 83.6% drop in student numbers, according to a ­report from industry body English UK. This was compounded by a ­further drop of 35.7% into 2021.

In Scotland, the effects were even worse, especially among young ­learners. While 12,789 under-18s came from abroad to study English in Scotland in 2019, in 2021 that was just 26 – a drop of 99.8%.

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The evaporation of students due to Covid, combined with a controversial failure to extend to English language schools the business rates relief given to other firms, saw some colleges fold entirely.

Melanie Butler, the editor-in-chief of industry publication EL Gazette, pointed to Oxford and Cambridge, which had English teaching ­industries on a similar scale to Edinburgh pre-Covid. In Oxford, where businesses weren’t handed rates relief, schools closed. In Cambridge, where the tax was lifted, none did.

Basil Paterson had run three schools in Edinburgh pre-Covid, but they were forced to merge into just one in order to survive. Hunter says there is no doubt that at least one of those closures was purely due to Covid.

But as the country enters a post-pandemic stage, hopes of ever achieving the kinds of numbers seen in 2019 are vanishingly small.

Hunter says that Basil Paterson’s student numbers week-on-week are down by around 50% on 2019’s ­numbers. “We have a totally different landscape,” the school principal says.

Alba English, another of the six ­Edinburgh schools which have ­survived the past three years, has seen a similar decline.

Chris Russell, the school’s director, told The National the sector had been “absolutely hammered” by the joint crises of Covid and Brexit. But he left no doubt about where he placed the blame for the current state of the ­industry.

“We are still open,” he says, “but our numbers remain considerably down on 2019 – and we’re employing fewer teachers than then too. Comparing April 2019 to April 2022, we are down just over 60% in terms of student numbers. I believe that this is no longer Covid, but is Brexit.”

Alba English runs courses for adults, many of whom would have come to work in hospitality or other low-paid roles while learning ­English in formal classes in their free time. However, Brexit has made such a study arrangement illegal for EU ­citizens who could previously work here without an issue.

“That market is gone and isn’t coming back,” Russell says, “unless there’s a change of heart at Westminster which we can’t imagine is likely. The state of the industry now is Brexit.”

Russell, with whom The National spoke last Wednesday, will have left the industry altogether by the time this story is published.

“I’ve worked here all through Covid and Brexit,” he says, “but I just don’t really see a great future for it [the ­industry], so I’m off to retrain for something different.”

Russell is far from the only teacher to have left the struggling industry, with Hunter saying her school was finding it harder and harder to recruit as a result.

And teacher training courses – run for educators in other countries who might teach English or other subjects in the language – have also been ­decimated.

Hunter says that the teacher courses run at Basil Paterson College had attracted around 60 people each year. That is expected to drop to around 15 this year, and “three or even none” in 2023.

ENGLISH UK’s Jodie Gray warned: “The true impact of Brexit is yet to be fully realised. Our customer base – predominantly European teenagers and young adults – are looking at alternatives to UK study as a result of our post-EU border policies.”

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Another such post-Brexit policy that has hammered the UK industry – anecdotally sending European students to other English-teaching hubs such as Ireland and Malta – is the Tory government’s new requirement for children to travel on passports instead of ID cards.

Butler says that this is one of the key struggles facing the industry, as the vast majority of pupils don’t have passports and are unlikely to go through the bureaucracy needed to get one simply for a trip to the UK.

Since the passport requirement was brought in in October 2021, the Tourism Alliance said in a report that “the market has collapsed”.

Hunter estimated that as few as 10% of students in any one class may hold a passport.

Butler says the rule will have a significant knock-on impact on Scotland’s university system, which she says is arguably the best in the world.

The foreign student pipeline from language schools to higher education is well established and, Butler says, the decline of the industry could well lead to decline elsewhere.