The PIE: Could you tell us how SpeakUp London came about?
Farhan Quraishi: It’s one of those typical entrepreneur stories. While my partner and I were working in a school with a small provision for languages, she then started running some private ELT classes and I thought, this looks like a good opportunity. I worked my way up from teacher to principal in three years.
I began researching into costs of equipment, I saw an ad in the “freebies” section on Gumtree, saying ‘school closing down, all furniture free first come first served’, five minutes away. I just about managed to get a moving van to come down within the hour, and called everyone I knew to come and help. We emptied a four-floor building, and came out with the works. It was everything you needed to set up a school. People don’t believe me, but this genuinely happened!
“Every school, has a USP, right? Ours has always been a serious but also fun and caring place to go”
When it came to finding a location, a friend told me about his old place, on Oxford Street of all places. The landlord was great, and let me have it without a deposit – so we took this basement property with two classrooms and no windows, but it was so homely. That’s what sets the precedent for how we operate now – a home away from home.
The PIE: You’ve been operating for almost 10 years. How has the school developed over the last decade?
FQ: There’s been many challenges along the way. Non-accredited centres were the biggest threat for us; we call them the pop-up shops. In the early years of SpeakUp, we were in a shared building, so we took a couple of floors. And in the rest of that space, we had so many of these pop-up shops come up, really undercutting us in the market. But we’ve developed over the last 10 years with massive growth; we had 300% growth year on year. That has continued purely due to the quality and value that we offer, the central London location, qualified teachers… but it’s more about the atmosphere. It’s difficult. Every school, has a USP, right? A character or a persona. Ours has always been a serious but also fun and caring place to go.
The PIE: What does SpeakUp offer outside of the usual academic experience?
FQ: One great thing that we’ve done outside of our usual classes is offer free speaking classes, usually one or two sessions a day. We are quite transparent; we tell the students that the teachers for these classes are volunteers, newly qualified teachers or teachers who want to get back into the industry. We don’t charge for it, but it’s a win-win, because not only is it optional, but we give the teachers continuing professional development, peer observations, and a buddy system is in process.
It’s had amazing feedback, from both students and teachers, and it builds confidence. We also have quite a varied social activity program and provide a lot of pastoral support to students. Students can book an appointment with our assistant director of studies or director of studies to discuss anything, and we’re super flexible. It’s not a commercial enterprise so it’s not just “the customer is always right” approach. If a student is not happy with the teacher or the level of the group, we find an alternative solution.
The PIE: You’ve got students coming from everywhere. Where in the world do more of your students come from?
FQ: The honest answer is I couldn’t pinpoint it because it’s so mixed. The highest number is Turkish, followed by Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, Saudi, Arabian, French, Russian, Chinese, Columbia, Guinean, Iranian, Libyan, Indonesian… those are all fairly equal proportion, which was intended.
When Brexit was approaching, historically we were 60-70% Italians, Spaniards – Europeans. We read the terrain and decided that was the time to extend our reach, because these relationships take time to market. We did that hard work back then and now it seems to be paying off.
The PIE: How have you been able to bounce back from a difficult 18 months with Covid?
FQ: I’m an optimistic person. I’ll be honest, it’s our team that gave us confidence. Just before lockdown, all the teachers said to me and my partner, ‘Whatever you need us to do to get through this, we’re ready’. And, that really gave us hope.
“Teachers have a real, massive impact, which is what inspired me”
There was a mutual respect, and no archaic hierarchy. The home away from home ethos is also extended to staff; they’re still stakeholders at the end of the day, and everybody has the right to be involved in the process. That set the tone for the pandemic and there were some superstars born, especially through this theme of inclusion. We gave them some scenarios regarding furlough, and they decided that the fairest option was a three-week-off, three-week-on roster. Everybody took take a bit of a hit on hours, but also had to put in the work.
Financially, we planned down to the worst-case-scenario of not getting any support, but I’m glad to say we are 99.9% up to date on our business rates, HMRC, rent, and we had a coronavirus business loan, which also helped. We just stuck to the plan, pushed marketing and rejigged everything. On that Friday before lockdown, I saw an email about a virtual classroom provider. They and I corresponded, and by the next Monday we were operational. Changes were made overnight – there was no ‘let’s wait for approval’ process.
The PIE: What’s the most rewarding thing about being in the ELT sector and running SpeakUp?
FQ: I had a degree in accounting and finance, which was my predestined career path – but for me, satisfaction is in helping others. It’s the measure of my success. Being in ELT, you change people’s lives. I went to a grammar school, and I remember before the 11 plus exam, my mum took me to speak with my teacher at the time and asked if she thought I could get into the grammar – she said no – and that really impacted me.
But there was also another teacher whom I was begging to give me guitar lessons at the public school when I was 10, and he said no due to professional boundaries. When he left for a new school he held me back at the end of the class and said, ‘I’m really sorry I couldn’t give you guitar lessons’. And he gave me his guitar. It made me so grateful that, you know, somebody who has no loyalty to me did this, and changed my mindset. It changed my perception of the previous teacher, and told me not all teachers are bad – teachers have a real, massive impact, which is what inspired me.
“A lot of schools are seeing longer-term students who want more tangible results”
The PIE: What’s next for SpeakUp in 2022?
FQ: SpeakUp is going back to basics, and really going back to that ethos of home away from home. I think a lot of schools are seeing longer-term students who want more tangible results, so we have to look at things like blended learning, on top of standard reporting systems in place. There also has to be a good harmony between between tech and education, and I think a lot of schools are going to have to start embracing it and making it integral to part of the learning process. I think that that’s the expectation now of students, so that’s going to be our focus next year.
We want apps for students where everything is under one roof, and tangible results. We really want added value for students, and to go the extra mile.