The CES language school on the high street of the attractive Oxfordshire village of Wheatley describes itself as a “boutique”. In education, the word suggests a friendly, intimate atmosphere, with small classes and a homestay nearby. This is exactly what MSMT founder Keith Killby and trustee Caroline Gavin were looking for in the early 1990s – and what the school continues to provide, to the great satisfaction of the Trust and the students we have sent there.
It contrasts with the other college we use, Central School of English in London, with which we have also had a long and successful relationship. Two-thirds of our students opt for London.
The quiet setting of Wheatley, even though only five miles from Oxford, might appear an odd location. Since 2012 it has been owned by the CES group, which has seven schools and its nerve centre in Dublin. CES acquired it from Robin and Chris Vernede who founded the school in 1983, buying the derelict Oxford House Stores. The building is on the site of a Tudor inn that had once been owned by John Milton and burned down in the 18th century. It was rebuilt in the Regency period, with white plaster covering the limestone façade.
Robin recalled: “The building had become a doss-house for tramps and feral cats and it took us a year to convert into a school. Our idea was to create a school of limited size where students would enjoy a greater degree of personal care and attention, both academic and pastoral, than is normally possible in larger city-based schools. We were living in Wheatley and thought it provided an attractive and safe location, close to Oxford but away from the tourist masses.”
It is an ethos that a former Principal of CES-Oxford, Peter Williams, fully bought into. “It is a hard-selling marketplace but a type of student is drawn to that very English environment,” he said.
Like Robin and Chris Vernede, Peter put a value on the MSMT connection well above the impact that it makes on the bottom line. “Your Italians come from normal families, not the super-rich, they are very grounded,” he said. Robin added: “We were aware of the special circumstances that led to the Trust’s foundation and each year it sent us lovely and appreciative students.”
In the summer of 2017 the Trust sent 10 students to CES on their month-long bursaries. Those arriving in high summer find the school at its busiest, with about 100 students from all over the world at Wheatley and another 100 junior learners (aged 12 to 16) at a residential campus in Ruskin College. Another “bulge” occurs in March/April, while at other times there may be as few as 20 students.
The school has three office staff and four teachers – rising to 20 during the “bulges”. “This industry reflects tourism rather than education,” said Peter. “The challenge is how to deal with growth and contraction.” A long-term student will have any issues dealt with in the first week and then be settled; in summer, with short-term students, there are always issues to address.
The school has 11 classrooms, with an average of six students per class. Morning lessons begin at 9.30, with an emphasis on grammar. Afternoon lessons take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday, concentrating on reading and writing skills and pointing students towards relevant exams, such as IELTS, FCE and CAE. The school arranges a busy social programme, including an orientation tour of Oxford every Monday afternoon. For example, for £5, go punting! The school also uses UK Study Tours for more distant trips.
The school has an attractive garden and a kitchen that students often use to throw a party. “The Italians are particularly good at this,” says Peter.
On my visit in June 2017 I chatted to two MSMT students. Antonio Tantalocchi, from le Marche, who wished to join the Carabinieri military police, chose Wheatley because it was smaller than London. Chiara Pacella, from Sulmona, who was working towards a CAE certificate (Cambridge English: Advanced) and aimed to study medicine, said: “I chose Wheatley because of bad news in London, like terrorism. It’s peaceful here, the quality of life is better than in a big city and Oxford is the centre of English culture.”