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  • Writer's pictureIan Gallagher

Introducing Birchwater Education

Ben Kesp from The Ben Kesp Academy takes time out to interview Ian Gallagher to find out more about Birchwater Education (BWE).

The story so far...


BK: Thank you Ian for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. Firstly, tell me - Who, what and where are Birchwater Education?

IG: Well, you'll find Birchwater Education or BWE as it's sometimes called, in Limerick City on the west coast of Ireland. Believe it or not, Limerick is the 3rd largest city in Ireland and students generally find it a great place to work and study. We are known for being an English language school and business college but we also have computer classes for children on the weekends. I am the founder (Ian Gallagher) of the college. I've been very lucky to have had the experience of working in the education sector across Ireland and the UK as well as various countries in Asia. I had an amazing time in Malaysia, Kazakhstan and China working with the Ministry of Education in Melaka, the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools in Kokshetau/Almaty and Wellington College International in Tianjin, China. All this experience has helped me to start Birchwater Education and create a strong educational foundation to work from.

BK: Of all the places you have been to, where was your favorite place to live?

IG: That's a tough question. I get asked that a lot and I can never single out any place as a favorite. Each place had it's own special draw and unique features. Malaysia was my first experience overseas. I was living the dream there teaching and mentoring local teachers. To be honest, I'm still living the dream. I met a lot of great people in each place I lived and that's what I remember more than the actual countries or cities themselves. I feel that the places and cities I lived in were like a spice you'd add to a meal but the people I met during my travels are what added substance to it all and that's what I really remember.

BK: What have you found to be the biggest challenge so far?

IG: The hardest thing has been learning the ropes in terms of marketing, selling, SEO and web design. There's a lot to learn as it's a huge field that requires a lot of dedication. Saying that, there are a lot of benefits to starting a business these days. The world is a whole lot smaller and social media makes the playing field somewhat more even. Moving from the classroom as a teacher to building an English school and business college has been challenging but I'm loving the process and the journey. I'm lucky to have a great team working with me. It wouldn't be possible without them.

BK: What makes Birchwater Education stand out from it's competitors?

IG: Well firstly, I need to acknowledge that the language schools and business colleges in Limerick are very good. There are a lot of great courses to choose from and there are a lot of great teachers here in Limerick working in these schools. What makes us stand out? I'll give you the top 3 in my opinion.

1. The Teaching experience, School Culture and Motto - For us, it's about the teaching and learning from the top down and bottom up. What I mean by that is every member of staff has been a teacher or educator in the past so we understand the issues students have and the difficulties they face. The teachers also have industry experience which they can draw on in the classroom. If you are doing a professional business course, you want someone teaching you that has business experience, right?

The management team also know the challenges that the teachers face, which is important in creating the right atmosphere and culture in the school. This might not seem like a typical point to make but trust me, when everyone is on the same page and share the same goals, you notice it in the classroom. Everything flows better. You could argue that it's what makes the likes of Apple and Google so successful. This isn't always the case with some colleges. The owners are often businessmen that know very little about education, which sometimes effects the quality of the service they provide. This might be a cliché but at BWE the students and their education come first.

2. Our Students make the decisions - There are a lot of schools that are set up like production lines. Especially the likes of what I call 'corporate English schools' and franchises that run below average courses during the summer and throughout the year. The prices are usually great but the quality is never what you expect. In these particular types of schools, it is 100% about the profit. The students and the staff are usually the last people to be consulted when changes are made because decisions are based on how to maximise profit. In many cases, the staff do not know the names of the students. They go through the motions without ever being involved or feeling part of the experience. At BWE, the students and staff are at the centre of the decision making process. We're always asking for feedback and input to help us improve the overall experience across everything from cultural trips to assessments. We do this to make sure our students have an amazing experience studying English at our school while they are living in Ireland

3. Location and Facilities - We have a great location in the city centre. It is a very modern building. Other schools are in old buildings that get cold in the winter, poor wifi, old computers, terrible facilities etc. Our building is new, it's warm in the winter, it has elevator access, a chill out area, a good security system at the door, great computer facilities and our new student room will have a cooking facility and a trendy lounge area!

BK: A cooking facility? Tell me more about that.

IG: Well food is always a big topic when you teach English. So students will have a chance to do live cooking classes in English while giving speaking about the ingredients, talking about the dishes from their home country and carrying out role plays around ordering food that incorporates the likes of customer service and hospitality. Learning is about doing. English is about using the language in real life situations. We want to give students the chance to use English in real life. Why not make the experience of learning English more practical? When you learn about science you carry out experiments. When you learn English, should it not be practical? We'll also have a board room setting for students that wish to learn business English. I can't say too much but we have a lot of ideas in the pipeline.

BK: From an international perspective, why would students choose Ireland rather than a school in England or the UK?

IG: I can give you 5 great reasons for that.

2. Rent prices are 65% more affordable in Limerick than London!

3. When you study English in Ireland you can also work. That's not possible in the UK anymore.

4. For junior students, again it's safe and friendly while Irish families have a great reputation in Europe and overseas for homestay immersion courses. From the feedback I've been given, the food provided is usually a lot better. Irish families tend to treat the students like part of the family which gives students the confidence to speak English.

5. This point will be a slight bone of contention but unlike the UK, we're still a part of Europe. When the UK eventually leave, there could be a lot of issues for European students getting visas or studying. No one really knows but I would bet on Ireland getting a large amount of summer students in 2019 from the EU.

BK: As an English School and Business College, Birchwater Education must offer a wide choice of courses. What's on offer?

IG: We have 4 areas to choose from:

I would like to offer more programmes as our staff are multi talented. We will begin to offer more as we grow and gain a reputation.

BK: What about course certification?

IG: Yes, of course, all the courses are certified. We partner with well known awarding bodies such as the Institute of Commercial Management, Trinity College London and NCC education. We have have close ties with the Limerick Institute of Technology and the National College of Ireland that accept International Foundation Diploma pathway students. We also provide guardianship for students studying at Villiers International IB school in Limerick.

BK: So far, what programmes have been successful for BWE?

IG: That's a good question. Our most successful course to date has been the junior English language summer school. We are designing it next year to have a greater mix of local and international students to improve the immersion factor and the opportunity for students to speak more English. The general English classes for students living in Limerick are becoming more popular. The professional business courses and Digi-Tech for children are getting a lot of enquiries which is great to see. We expect a lot more international students to start the Trinity ISE courses soon as we build our brand awareness and increase our market reach overseas. It takes time to build trust and relationships with agents, students, parents but we always get a great response from people who visit or study at the school. I'm very optimistic about 2018. We actually have a group of Spanish students coming to Limerick over the St. Patricks week so it will be great to show them the rich culture and beautiful scenery that Ireland has to offer.

BK: What challenges do you face in the education sector in Ireland, today?

IG: Well Ben, I'm not sure I want to start talking about that as I might go on a rant especially if we look at the current situation in Ireland with regard to the English language sector. Returning to Ireland to start a business has always been a big goal of mine, but it really isn't easy here for a number of reasons. I could have picked any country or city in the world to start this business but I decided to come and set up in Limerick because I believe in the area. Unfortunately there is very little support in Ireland in the English language sector for new businesses. It seems as though no one wants to take responsibility for anything. I'm sure there are multiple levels at play here but it is extremely frustrating. Truthfully, and this may be a little controversial to say, but Ireland is not living up to it's potential to attract international students especially in the English language sector. There are of course, a number of reasons for this. In my opinion though, a certain percentage of the reason is due to the lack of understanding about the current situation surrounding ACELS, MEI, INIS and the new quality mark that has been in the pipeline for far too long. Saying that, our Local Enterprise Office have been very supportive, which we truly appreciate.

BK: It looks like 2018 will be an exciting year. What can we expect in the coming year?

IG: I'm excited by it all. Very optimistic actually. When you look around, people are back on the streets of the cities in the hustle and bustle of it all, construction is in full swing again and the economy is picking up. Fingers crossed it keeps going.

Here at Birchwater Education, we're going to keep working hard to promote Ireland and Limerick. I hope to employ more excellent teachers in the coming year and complete the extension to the English language school. I have some great ideas for the student room and the college in general. We'll be out and about at the agent fairs and student workshops as much as possible. We'll be visiting Kazakhstan early next year followed by Spain and Italy. I'm hoping to touch base with all our agents and expand on the great work we've done together in 2017. A school/college is really a community of people coming together to help improve the opportunities and skills of a person who wants a better life. A lot of people are involved in this process so I want to make sure I meet the people who help us and thank them` in 2018.

BK: What's next for Birchwater Education?

IG: We have an ISO 9001 application coming soon as well as an ILEP inspection which I'm looking forward to. I'll let you know how they go.

BK: Thank you for your time and I wish you and Birchwater Education an exciting and enjoyable 2018.

For more information why not view our website for our full selection of quality accredited courses which include ; University Pathway Programmes, English Courses, Professional Business Courses and our popular English Language Summer School.

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