FOR BETTER OR for worse, the English language has become the lifeblood of international interaction, be it trade, travel or tax evasion. One of the biggest threats to Hong Kong's traditional position as a successful regional entrepot is the deterioration of the ability of its citizens to use it. The decline of English standards here compared with our regional competitors has been well documented and Government attempts to address the situation have been half-hearted at best. One person trying to reverse the trend is Kenneth Barnes who, together with assistant Ines Wong, founded, and now runs, the Oakhill School Of English. Mr Barnes once led a very different life. In the mid 1980s he ran a successful building company, employing 14 tradesmen, in the south of England. 'I used to buy old properties - Edwardian, Victorian, Tudor - and renovate them. It was hard work but I made a lot of money.' Then in his mid-40s, Mr Barnes grew restless and hit the road. 'I was probably going through a mid-life crisis, I suppose. I was tired - I wanted to change direction,' he said. It took four years of travelling in all directions, photographing wildlife along the way, before Mr Barnes had purged the wanderlust from his system. When that time came, he found himself in Hong Kong. 'I was in a place near Tsim Sha Tsui and I was offered a job as a relief teacher in a commercial school.' What he saw, however, he did not like: 'The school had about 50 to the classroom, mixed levels, mixed nationalities and I suffered that for about two years.' Dismayed by what he calls the 'commercial production line' approach, Mr Barnes decided he could do better: 'So I put my money where my mouth was.' Oakhill School of English was born in Tai Wai in 1993. Tai Wai was chosen because it is a convenient transport hub. It proved a wise choice as the school educates pupils from as far afield as Kowloon, Ma On Shan, Tai Koo and Shau Kei Wan. Mr Barnes has obviously thought long and hard about what he offers his students. All courses are designed by him and he restricts classes to a maximum of six students. Teachers are accompanied by a Cantonese speaking helper, often an ex-student, to help explain things and save a considerable amount of time that would otherwise be wasted consulting dictionaries. During the day, the school teaches children, but at night adults come to improve specific aspects of the language that will help them with their work. Policemen interested in promotion or hotel management students looking to make more of an impression in front-of-house situations are nothing new at Oakhill. A strong word-of-mouth reputation and an interview with TVB Pearl ensured a steady flow of pupils to Mr Barnes' new school until the student register breeched the 99-pupil mark - the point at which a school must be registered. After registration as a supplementary language school, numbers continued to grow until the original property was no longer big enough. A location was found close by but this time Mr Barnes wanted to do it differently. 'We thought, 'Why rent again? I've got the money. Let's buy it'.' 'It' was a three-storey village house that had been turned into 'grotty' flats. Mr Barnes hired a bulldozer, drove it through the front door and completely gutted the place. Then, drawing on his past experience in the construction trade, he designed the interior to his liking, adding an extra staircase up the side of the building to help traffic flow through the first floor at busy times. Mr Barnes encountered much bureaucratic foolishness: 'Nobody has ever bought a village house, gutted it and put two staircases in. The Building Department went 'Huh - what have you done'?' Despite no legal-wrongdoing, they felt they had to make a fuss. Similar concerns were voiced over the large classroom windows Mr Barnes installed to give the place an airy feel and allow parents to see their children at work. They are unusual and therefore were considered suspect. Oakhill was even warned against using bars of soap in its washrooms. Only liquid soap is allowed in education establishments. In order to keep expenses down, Mr Barnes did as much as he could himself, juggling teaching in the old school with building in the new, throughout a year of toil-packed days. The new school, opened now for over a year, offers a pleasant setting within which to study. That, together with a staff approach that fosters what Ms Wong describes as a 'family spirit', and the individual attention bestowed on students, keeps them coming back to Oakhill. 'Sometimes, after two years, they will call us again: 'I have a problem'. Maybe they have a new job and they need to study again,' Ms Wong said. Family spirit also flows when the parents of long-term pupils fall on hard times. In several cases, Mr Barnes has taken it upon himself to sponsor a child until their own family is able to re-shoulder the burden. Despite Oakhill's success, Mr Barnes is reluctant to expand his operation into other localities. 'I'd take over next door if it came up - I'd take over the whole block if I could,' he said. But the enormous task of setting up a second, independent, operation is daunting. One of the main problems is attracting enough teachers of the right calibre. The fact that Oakhill keeps its classes small in order to concentrate on quality education allied to the government-imposed maximum of HK$680-per-month fees for registered schools means it is tough to offer enough money to tempt the right people in great numbers. In a sense it has become a victim of its own success. If the infeasibility of opening more schools upsets Mr Barnes, he does not show it. 'It would be nice to earn more money,' he said. But money is not the important thing here. 'I have found my niche,' he said, with an air of contentment.