DORSET’S language schools are suffering a huge drop in student numbers after new passport rules compounded problems caused by the pandemic.

One school in the multi-million pound sector has reported being 80 per down on pre-pandemic student numbers as the industry suffers “one hit after another”.

Around five language schools in the Bournemouth area are thought to have disappeared since Covid struck.

Prior to the pandemic, the international education sector was said to be worth £300million to the local economy, with around 50,000 students a year coming to the Bournemouth and Poole area.

Under-18s from the European Union could previously come to the UK in school groups, carrying only a national identity card, but now they require a full passport.

David Jones, chair of Dorset’s Regional Accredited Language Schools Association (Ralsa), said: “The younger students, who aren’t really a threat, immigration-wise, aren’t able to travel with an ID card. They have to have a passport. They wouldn’t necessarily apply for a passport for any other purpose.”

He is principal of ETC International College in Bournemouth, where he said student numbers were down 80 per cent on pre-pandemic times.

“We’re all down on numbers because of the pandemic and it’s another kicking that we’ve been taking,” he said.

“Our numbers are nowhere near what they would have been, because of the pandemic.”

He said students were going to other countries such as Ireland, where language schools were “absolutely booming”.

He added: “The relationship with European nations was damaged by Brexit, whether we want to admit that or not. We’re on the way back but that kind of thing doesn’t help.”

A survey by the Tourism Alliance found 81 per cent of English language schools in the UK had seen their revenue decline by more than half during the pandemic.

Three quarters were concerned their business might fail this year.

The alliance’s director, Kurt Janson, called for the government to find a solution on the passport issue.

“So far we’ve been stonewalled by the Home Office who say this is one of the Brexit promises, to have secure borders, which means everyone coming to the UK has to have a passport,” he said.

“While I can understand that, we need a practical solution because children are not going to disappear into the black economy.”

He added: “This is a £3.2billion industry that were talking about.”

Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns said he had been discussing the problem with language schools for “many months” and was lobbying the Home Office.

“Under the new border arrangements, there has been a strengthening to make sure our system isn’t being abused by people coming here who shouldn’t be here,” he said.

“The argument I and others have been making is that if you get an organised school party of kids who are under 17, there must be a mechanism whereby the party as a whole can apply for a collective visa and travel on ID cards as a party.

“So far I haven’t been successful in persuading the Home Office that this is something they want to adopt but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up. I won’t give up and I continue to engage with ministers.”

The government has been approached for comment.