Wednesday, 20 July 2011

City-1 circle of hell

My bike was stolen.  This meant that I either had to walk the three miles into work or take the bus.

I tried walking - this is a slow process of returning myself to the fitness I had four years ago - but the three miles in and the three miles out in one day killed me the first time I tried it.  Yes, I know it gets better eventually, but I decided to return to the bus in the morning and walk back in the evening, for a short while, anyway. 

So, I'm back on the morning bus after an absence of about five weeks.  In the meantime, due to the withdrawal of government subsidy, as I understand it, the Cambridge City-4 has withdrawn all stopping on Milton Road.  I take the City-1, the bus travelling into the centre a spoke widdershins from where the City-4 used to go.  Here's a map.  People who would formerly have gone for buses going up and down the Milton Road are now walking that little bit further to the City-1 bus route, and this includes the kids whose parents have sent them to England 'for the summer'.

One of the reasons that Cambridge is so rich is the shameless trading on the Cambridge brand that goes on in the name of education; Cambridge is not the only city that does this.  Oxford also sells the 'Oxford brand'.  Anyway, there are a hundred and one language schools, all promising a very special education, all shovelling the kids in for a week or several weeks, parcelling them out to various homes in the suburbs around the centre, promising them a real English experience, taking their money and sending them home.  I'm sure the teaching is fine, but it all seems like a bit of a factory and (I imagine) a very profitable one.  Here's an example.  If you look at the bottom, there they are - the one to ten week summer courses.  Here's how much it costs the kids: Over a thousand dollars a week, including accomodation. 

I've just had a leaflet through my door asking if I want to host a kid.  I'd imagine that I'd get about a hundred pounds a week for that - the rest of the fees will go to paying for the teachers, the cost of the site on which the courses are held, the cost of the materials (how much does talking cost?), and the remainder will be profit for the owner of the language school.   It's likely that there are 15 - 20 kids in each class; that's close to $20, 000 ( and nearer to $25,000 per week if the class is around 20) for each class of kids. 

The teacher maybe gets mayb £600 - £700 a weak, if we're being generous. 

There are incidentals in hiring the teacher legitimately - NI, and possibly a pension - but these won't push the cost of the teacher over £1000 a week.  The exchange rate varies, but at $2.00 to £1.00 (and it's often fewer dollars per pound), that still leaves $23,000 to pay for the site and materials.  Very profitable, I'd imagine.

And yet, these English Language schools use the subsidised (or not-so subsidised) council transport to 'add value' to their courses.  How much of their profit does the council see?  Apart from the VAT on the money the poor kids spend in the shops and spent by the homes in which they stay (which goes to the government, anyway), none.

These kids get to travel on 'English public transport' from their 'lodgings' surrounding the city centres to their 'schools' in the centre, and they have to pay.  Typically, their first 'English' act is to get on the bus their first day here, and ask for a 'Megarider?' uncertainly, the uplift at the end indicating that this is the first  time they've said the word. 

The kid will then scrabble around for payment for this Megarider, usually producing a £20.00 note, not understanding why the bus driver looks frustrated and the people behind them in the queue are tapping their feet.  Very often, the kid will have a long and studious and 'responsible' discussion with the bus driver as to where they should get off. Meanwhile, the normal commuters are seething.

All of this describes things that we should tolerate.  They're kids.  They don't know what to do or what are the social norms.  They're unaware of themselves holding up a commuter route at commuting time.  They're in a strange land.  I've been at a bus stop when a bus too full to take passengers has whizzed past, and while the English natives looked a bit cross and cursed, the English language kids looked a bit worried; I chucked them into the taxi I'd called to get me into the centre on time.  It's what their parents would have wanted, or I would have wanted, had they been my children. 

What's happening now, however, with the killing of the Milton Road bus route, is that every morning there are about seven or eight English language kids at each bus stop for the City-1, meaning that each stop is extended up to five minutes while the driver sorts them out. Meanwhile, the passengers waiting at the next stop get more numerous in number, many of those at the next stop being English language kids, and the wait at the next stop increases, as do the cries for help.

Does the driver get any money for this help he gives the kids?  No.  He's more likely to be penalised for his bus being late.

Do those of his passengers who are ordinary commuters get anything to compensate them for their lateness to work and the overtime they will have to do to compensate?  No. They have to make the time up at the other end of the day.

I stress:  It is not the kids' fault.  They don't know what's happening, and actually they get more flack than they should from the other passengers for 'standing in the wrong place' (e.g. the stairs) or 'talking too loudly in a foreign language' (which is kind of thoughtless, but these are kids).

I do, however, think that the language schools are ripping these kids off, and making the rest of us (and the Stagecoach bus drivers) deal with problems that the language schools should be sorting out.  The lack of concern from the language schools causes these kids to be seen as an irritant, generally. Decent language schools, who really do intend to offer the kids a good experience, really should do something to stop these kids inconveniencing everybody else who uses the buses.

Firstly, I have *no idea* why the language schools are incapable of running their own buses through the various suburbs.  They only need to do it once or twice a day, and they'd be able to get the kids safely to the schools, reassuring the parents that they are being properly looked after.

If the language schools can't do that, they should be able to subsidise Stagecoach, and should be asked by the council to do so.  They earn massive profits, and are perfectly able to join together to run an extra bus or two around the crucial time in the morning around the months of June - August. 

Finally, if the schools can't pay for or run extra buses, there is one very simple thing that they could arrange to make life more amenable for those who share the public transport with the language school kids and give the kids a better experience.  I'm not being finicky here - traffic on the City-1 is at least double what it is the rest of the year between 7.45 and 8.45 a.m. when the language school kids are here, and at times the buses have been dangerously overloaded and taken double the time to get into the centre.

The language schools could send these kids pre-issued Megariders. Just that one thing, for all of its miniscule cost, could at least make sure that the buses stay on time, even if they are overloaded.  How difficult would that be?

I wish CCC would get some balls on this issue.  Make the language schools pay their way here, and give those kids (and those who share the buses with them) a better experience.

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