Programme Management: Coaches

Well, in summer school… depending on which hemisphere you are in you are either thinking, I’m a bit late or a bit previous given it’s only just spring. The latter is more accurate in my circumstance.

I started working as a programme manager for an English language summer school provider last year. This is not my first dalliance with summer schools- I have years of involvement- but this is my first move away from teaching and teacher management. It’s not that I don’t do these things anymore, rather I don’t do them as much.

Last March, I became a programme manager, a role that sees English language summer schools from a bird’s eye view. My job is to set up summer school centres and have the ball rolling for when the management team comes in to run the operation in June. Once everything is up and running, my job is to work from a distance and offer guidance and support when needed. At the end of the summer, it’s the programme manager’s responsibility to finalise any administrative tasks and close things down.

Having done the role last year, I can see how I would have carried things out differently if were to do it all over again. This is not exactly a bad thing as it informs my priorities from now; I can start with coach bookings. Maybe not the most interesting of topics but an essential component of summer school work.

Given that we not only provide full bed and board, lessons, and activities, we also have to work out how we get students from an airport to their summer school – and back again when they leave – and also how we get students from their summer school to points of interest and back again in time for dinner. In some instances, you can walk or take public transport, but there are limits to this.

If you are lucky enough to have a regular train service from a station round the corner from your summer school, happy days, you have a back-up plan in the event you can’t find a coach company with availability for your dates. You may be luckier still that the train is direct, fast, and cheaper than hiring a coach. You’ve hit the jackpot if the train literally drops you at your point of interest- it’s like you have broken the bank at Monte Carlo.

As mentioned above, the key phrase is back-up. Intercity train travel never works out as well as you might like, and experience tell me you are almost certainly better off finding a coach. You can take fairly large numbers of students on a train (good luck herding 100 teenagers onto a public bus though) but you are at the mercy of scheduled times and how far you still have to go to your final destination once the train has reached its final stop. As an example, the train from Brighton to London is quicker and potentially cheaper than by coach, but the train will only take you as far as Victoria. If your final destination is Madame Tussauds in Marylebone, you still have over an hour to walk or two changes on the London Underground to complete your journey. If you are leading a trip with a group of 60 students, good luck- it would be better if you had hired a coach.

Coach hire is fundamentally more convenient and as it generally takes students exactly where they need to be. It affords more time to see the sites, and maybe even allows everyone to feather in a bit of shopping, too. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule but doing the same journey by public transport invariably means you will be pressed for time and worst of all, get back late and miss dinner. From experience, I can tell you that hungry people need feeding and pizzas aren’t cheap.

You might think that setting off earlier and possibly squeezing the travel time by making everyone walk faster might compensate but in reality, this rarely works. Large groups don’t move quickly, people are often late, and there’s an increased chance of students getting lost- especially when you have to catch connecting trains and are trying to do this quickly.

So, going back to what I said at the start, booking coaches is now my priority.

Unlike train tickets which can be bought with little notice, coaches have to be booked months in advance. The way I’m doing this is to look at local transport providers for the catchment area around the summer schools I’m looking after and asking for quotes. This is easier said than done given that we are not the only summer school provider who needs a lot of coaches, or for that matter other public groups who need transport. The key thing is to get in early and make your bookings. The later it is, the more you will have to go searching for other providers or potentially come up empty handed.

Once excursion coaches are booked, attention turns to arrival and departure coaches. That is the logistics of getting students from an airport to your summer school and back again. Your organisation might have a dedicated transfers officer, we do, but they don’t start until later in the season, and there is an expectation that much of the groundwork has been done before they come into the role.

As you may imagine, you can kill two birds with one stone by asking coach companies for transfers at the same time you are asking for excursion coaches. The only issue with this is unlike excursions which happen on set days and at set times, we don’t have the same level of clarity. We know groups of students will be coming on specific days but until the travel agents send us flight times, we can only ask coach companies to reserve vehicles until we can get back to them with flight details. If you are providing substantial business, they might be willing to reserve coaches for a particular day, but possibly not, especially if demand outstrips supply. As I said, we are not the only game in town that needs coaches.

Somethings I have learnt from doing this job last year is the earlier you start this process, the easier it is. Many coach companies downsized after Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of having a fleet of ten coaches, they now have three. Others have simply gone out of business altogether.

Investing time to develop a relationship with your coach providers and keeping them onside and up to date with details as and when they become pertinent is important. You clearly don’t want to be bothering them too much but honest discussions about where you are at in the proceedings is a good idea. If it looks like a group are going to pull out, thus lowering the number of coaches you need, warn them. Similarly, if you feel numbers will increase, let them know in advance- they might set aside more coaches for you.

On a final point, as a TEFL lifer, I’ve never shown much interest in moving to a different industry. Having said that, after looking into how many coaches we need and what it’s going to cost, I’ve come to the realisation that we are all in the wrong game. Who fancies going halves on a second-hand coach?

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Interested in other summer school related tools and topics? Click here: Summer school ideas


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