Interview with St Giles’ Founder Paul Lindsay and his son and Managing Director, Mark Lindsay
To mark the 60th Anniversary of St Giles International, we talk to the founder Paul Lindsay, and his son and current Managing Director, Mark.
Paul, how did you first get involved in teaching English as a foreign language?
Paul Lindsay: I started my career teaching English and French to native English speakers. I got a summer job teaching at a busy English language school and was very excited by the demand for learning our language. So I scraped together £100 and rented a small attic in a back street of Soho, London, and launched a school of English.
What was your original attitude towards teaching English as a foreign language?
PL: I hadn’t been trained to teach English as a foreign language as there wasn’t any such training available. However, I didn’t think the way English was taught at the school where I worked was very good. It was all done from textbooks which were extremely boring and grammar-focused. I felt that the best way to learn English was to live in the country with native speakers and learn the language in a practical way, whilst learning about the people and their culture.
What were the biggest difficulties you faced when setting up the first school?
PL: Once we got started the biggest problem was finding professional teachers who could adapt to the needs of the foreign learner of English. We employed out-of-work poets, playwrights and writers, but I insisted that they had a university degree, which was one of the reasons for turning down Harold Pinter (the famous English playwright) for a teaching position as he hadn’t studied at a university! I realised that specialist training for teachers was essential and really objected to the attitude of some people who felt they were able to teach English simply because they were English and spoke the language. This is what originally fuelled my desire to establish proper TEFL courses.
Why did you call the school St Giles?
PL: The school got properly established on Oxford Street, very near to St Giles Circus in the parish of St Giles in the Fields church, so it was to do with the location of where we were founded. I also thought St Giles sounded respectable and English.
How did you recruit your first students?
PL: Our very first students came from local businesses, which included a detective agency, a marriage bureau and an Italian restaurant! We asked them to direct any foreign customers to us and within days we had an Israeli poet, a German au pair and a student from El Salvador studying with us. Once we had a few students, they luckily recommended us to their friends. Being on Oxford Street also meant that lots of people saw us and enquired about our courses from simply walking past our sign.
Mark, how do you feel the EFL sector has changed over the past 60 years?
Mark Lindsay: When my father started St Giles in 1950s, there were not many competitors and the market was much smaller because the high cost of travel put it out of reach for most foreign students. In the 50s and 60s, most students applied directly and many were already in the UK, as there were not as many visa restrictions then. By the late 1970s, agents became increasingly important and for the first time, students were able to get independent advice from someone in their own country, in their own language. Over the years, the industry has grown enormously and now there are many medium to large organisations providing courses in most native English speaking countries (such as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland) so we have to compete internationally.
What do you think is the secret to St Giles’ longevity?
ML: We have always believed in the need to combine high teaching standards and support services, together with a positive and professional attitude. We have grown but not too rapidly and have financed this growth internally. So we have been able to sustain high standards of service, whilst expanding and still maintain close relationships with our students and agents.
Has St Giles’ fundamental values changed much over the past 60 years?
ML: No but that is our strength. We have always believed in maintaining high standards of teaching but in constant improvement and in embracing new technology. In the 60s St Giles was one of the first English language schools to install a language laboratory. We now have around 90% of our classrooms with Interactive Whiteboards. We have offered Teacher Training courses for over 50 years and this provides us with a supply of well-motivated and talented young teachers. We also recognise that students expect us to provide more than just good English courses. We know our students want a wide choice of good accommodation and also need care and support whilst they are studying with us. These form our basic values to help support and encourage students to learn English with us whilst enjoying themselves and sharing their experiences in a community with other students from all over the world.
When you look at what St Giles has achieved in its 60 years, what are you most proud of?
ML: One of my proudest personal achievements is opening St Giles London Central. When I started, we had just 21 students in a building with less than 4,000 square feet. Now, we own our own Central London building, which is almost 30,000 square feet and has a capacity for 720 students. Our expansion in the US and Canada is also a major achievement; not just to offer sites but high quality buildings in the best locations. We also launched Junior courses in the UK around 8 years ago and now offer 11 different destinations in the UK, USA and Canada. We have maintained independence for 60 years by strong and prudent financial management because good schools cost money and need high investment. Our family business structure ensures that we consider St Giles not just as a business but as an organisation which we can be proud to lead and care about in the long term. I am immensely proud that in 2015, our 60th year, we received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, which is a perfect symbol of our achievement!