Shane Lipscombe is the founder and CEO of the Saxoncourt Group. The company operates under the brand of Shane English
School, one of the major English conversation schools in Japan, and also operates schools in China, Taiwan, Poland and
Vietnam. The group also includes the Shane Global Village schools in English speaking countries, a publishing company, a
teacher training and recruitment organisation, and the children's examination board STYLE (Saxoncourt Tests for Young
Learners of English).
Lipscombe was born in London, and graduated from Auckland University. After extensive travel around the world, he
established the first Shane English School in Chiba, Japan in 1977. He did this interview by e-mail in May 2003.
I believe you first came to Japan at a pretty young age. What brought you here and what made you stay?
I was 22 when I first came to Japan. I had been working as an economic forecaster at Thorn Lighting in London
but that was the time of three-day weeks and the British economy was in a very sorry state. Being an economic
forecaster, I realised that well, and thought a year or two in Hong Kong would be a nice alternative to working in
London. My ticket to Hong Kong gave me stopovers in Seoul and Tokyo and when I got to Tokyo, I had just £50
in my wallet so thought I would stay for a while and try to improve my financial predicament.
Was teaching something you had wanted to do or was it just the easiest option open to an English-speaking foreigner in Japan?
Teaching was absolutely the last job that I had ever imagined myself doing! With an accounting and economics background,
and a yearn for travel, teaching was something I had never even contemplated. I wouldn't have thought I would have had
the patience to teach! I actually did a bit of modelling work when I first arrived, but teaching English was, by far, the
stabler of the two careers.
It certainly wasn't difficult to get a job teaching English. The Monday edition of the Japan Times and a telephone call
and I was given a job over the phone teaching a mixed group of 25 Marubeni employees starting that very same day. Some
were complete beginners and some were fluent in English and there was no course book. I had had no training as a teacher
so it was very much being thrown in at the deep end. The amazing thing was that I thoroughly enjoyed the situation!
Like many teachers, you supplemented your regular income with private students. What was it about you personally and professionally that made you take the next step, one that many teachers think about but never follow up on, and set up
your own school?
Lots of things fell into place quickly for me in Japan. I got a big flat out in the back end of Funabashi, far enough away
from the school where I was teaching. The school only had enough work for me four days of the week and didn't mind my
supplementing income by teaching students privately in my kitchen. I was one of the few Caucasian foreigners living in
Funabashi at that time and soon became well known in town. I was the foreigner on the bicycle distributing fliers late at
night, the idiot who dressed up as Father Christmas and handed out balloons in front of the station and the fellow who put
up handwritten posters in 'dodgy' Japanese in the local baker's, butcher's, chemist shop and so on. It wasn't long before
I had a hundred students in my kitchen. Not all at once, of course. It was a big flat, but not that big. It seemed to make
sense, therefore, to rent a building nearby and move the students there where I could offer them better facilities.
What steps were involved in setting up the school as a business?
This went in various stages over the next four years. I had never thought of myself as a long-termer in Japan but the longer
I stayed, the more students I was able to gather and the more interesting the English language business became. It wasn't until
my fifth year here that I decided to establish a company and try to make something of the potential and opportunities that
there obviously were in Japan at that time.
Did you have other teachers working for you from the beginning?
My first school became successful quite quickly and I was soon approached by other small English school owners in Chiba who
wanted me to manage their schools for them. This worked out very well as I could juggle various teachers between various
schools. Over the years, I bought out most of those schools and this enabled the growth of Shane English Schools to expand
What did you offer students at the beginning that was different from other schools or unique?
It was very much a cottage industry in those days. There were very few trained teachers and little regard for course content
or the structure of lessons. Because it was difficult to find enough trained teachers in Japan, I started recruiting TEFL-trained
teachers from the UK and hence the birth of Saxoncourt Recruitment. It wasn't long after that that we established Saxoncourt
Teacher Training. Because there were few good children's texts on the market, we began to write and publish our own materials
and hence the birth of Saxoncourt ELT.
At an early stage, we were involved in all aspects of the English language business, and that was the biggest difference from
other schools. We were (and still are!) a fun-loving school, so we always placed importance on exciting events for our students
(and our staff!). I think we did well at building a sense of community in the schools and between the schools.
What difficulties with setting up a business in Japan surprised you most?
Stubborn bureaucracy. The attitude of people at city halls and similar government offices was, on the whole, how to make life as
difficult as possible. Obstacle after obstacle was put in my path and rarely did I find government offices to be helpful. Quite
the contrary. This had the perverse result of my becoming more stubborn and more determined to be successful in Japan.
Establishing schools in Taiwan, for example, was a much simpler exercise, where city halls and government offices went out of
their way to be helpful.
Would you care to comment on the methods used by several of the big chain schools to pressure school managers to meet quotas
or students to pay huge tuition fees in advance?
I could talk about this for hours. You've hit another button. Shane English School is also a business and our school managers
also have targets to reach but I would hate to think that we ever pressure students to join. Our whole structure is different,
anyway. We do not sell tickets and we do not ask students to pay one year up front: students can join very easily and very
cheaply. We are confident that, on the whole, we are giving excellent lessons and value for money and that our students will
continue after the initial three months, which is sometimes different from the attitude shown by our larger competitors where,
in some cases, it is in their interests that students actually quit after only a few lessons.
In any business, there will be disputes, disgruntled employees and other such problems. Does the fact that some former Shane
teachers have used the Internet to attack the school bother you?
Not particularly. I have an excellent team running the schools in Japan and I have every confidence in them. We all share the
same ethic. We are not in business to cheat students, employees or anybody else. I sincerely think the best policy for long-term
success is one built on honesty and a mutual respect for others. I think, as a company, we have a good record in retaining
teachers and the number of teachers who return to us after breaks back home testifies to this. Happy teachers mean happy students,
which means a steady business so it is certainly not in our interests to make our staff unhappy.
One of the well-known reasons for the success of Shane English School is that teachers report to Directors of Studies who are,
like themselves, native English speakers and who understand the way of thinking and mentality of fellow expatriates. We, therefore,
have few problems with a gap between expectations of Japanese employers and western teachers.
Do you think the double-decker bus image used in a recent Nova TV commercial was a subtle dig at your school?
I'm sorry, but to be honest, I haven't seen that ad.
Why do think that the English ability of Japanese people as a whole has not really improved that much despite the huge amount of
money spent at eikaiwa schools?
Yes, it's a fair comment, isn't it. I am in a good position to be able to compare Japanese students to our students in Taiwan,
Mainland China, Poland and Vietnam. Again, I could go on for hours on this topic. One reason is the lack of real dedication.
Unfortunately, most students will only study English once or twice a week in Japan for an hour or so a time, whereas in other
countries, our students are more dedicated and spend more time studying. Another reason is the emphasis on doing well at school and
passing entrance examinations remains strong. This is not conducive to improving the general English language ability of Japanese.
When I first came here 26 years ago, there was wide discussion on this problem and it was generally acknowledged that it needed to
be solved. 26 years later and far too little has been done to actually solve the problem.
A lot of money has been spent at English schools. Until recently, far too many Japanese people have equated high fees with quality
teaching. That is not necessarily the case in Japan. Ironically, it has often been the opposite. With the continuing recession,
things are beginning to change and students are beginning to be more like their fellow Asians in increasingly demanding more value
for money. I just hope they realise there is no magic wand that any teacher has to give them instant English fluency. At the end of
the day, studying English takes time, effort and real dedication.
Do you agree that there has been a visible shift in interest among Japanese away from a narrow focus on America and towards other
cultures and languages? Did you see this as a factor when you set up your school?
Oh, absolutely. When I first came to Japan, most schools were 'beikaiwa' (American English) and my friends warned me that I should
pretend to be American if I wanted to get a job teaching. Over 26 years, I feel I have been chipping away at this mentality and I am
pleased to see that the Japanese market has been very receptive to the quality and expertise of British education generally and the
strengths in the industry of UK teacher training and publishing. I like to think Shane English School has played no small part in
this shift. There is now a plethora of British English schools throughout Japan and this pleases me enormously.
Has the way English is taught at Shane English School changed over the years? How would you describe the methods used today?
Yes, it has always changed. It's still changing and, no doubt, will always change. We are constantly trying to improve our teaching
styles and take advantage of new ideas and technology to stimulate the students and the teachers. Looking for that magic wand?
Shane English School was presented with a Coat of Arms in 1998 by the 'Heraldic Household of the Queen' for recognition of services to English teaching. That must have been a huge honour.
Yes, it was. This was the first time that an English school has been awarded a Coat of Arms.
Tell us about the Shane Global Village project.
Two years ago, the Shane English Schools in the UK, New Zealand and South Africa merged with the Global Village schools in Canada and
the USA. We have since established two Shane Global Village schools in Australia: Sydney and Brisbane, and will be opening a new school
in England next month - on the south coast in Hastings. With immersion schools in six English speaking countries, we are now one of the
major players in this market and have aggressive plans for yet more schools over the next three years.
We are now able to offer our staff more varied career opportunities, too. We already have a number of teachers who have, for example,
worked a year in Poland then gone off to Taiwan for two years and then arrived in Japan (by which time they could well be Assistant
Director of Studies or Director of Studies) and, similarly, we are now encouraging Shane Global Village staff to move between countries.
We now have Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Canadians working in our schools in the UK, British people working in New
Zealand, South Africa and so on.
We could also offer teachers careers in other parts of the English language business, whether it be in publishing, book selling, teacher
training or recruitment. It makes me proud that we can offer such opportunities and continues the tradition of having fun and exciting
schools for students and staff alike, which that first school back in Funabashi in 1977 was based on.
What does the future hold for you and your school?
Lots of hard work, lots of fun, lots of satisfaction and being able to think that I've done my best.
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