Language school students

A year ago in a blog article I wrote about EF students on the buses. At the time there had been stories and letters in the local papers about language students’ behaviour, particularly the leaving of litter in the local parks after evening gatherings. The issue has returned this year and it seems to me to be generating more complaints than before. It’s not ‘big’ on twitter but what comments there are, are universally derogatory. This week’s Oxford Times leads its letters page with two letters (a), (b) strongly critical of the crowds and congestion in the City centre. Today’s 13:30 South Today news on BBC TV had a full-length report about noisy gatherings and illegal drinking in the parks, particularly Headington Hill Park, and looking at how the police and Community Officers are having to try to control the problem. In the light of my own experience last year trying to talk to EF Language Travel about the problems I wasn’t surprised that the BBC found that EF had “no-one available” to respond to the story.

EF Language School on Pullens Lane has a permanent presence and is very visible, not least because of its distinctive logo and blue tops. They told me last year that their students aren’t a problem – they come for extended periods of study and don’t go around in gangs. I must have seen students from EF Language Travel, a different company. Unfortunately EF Language Travel’s website doesn’t seem to work so I can’t get information about their Oxford operation, but a business directory shows it is also located in Pullens Lane. This confirms what I was told last year when it emerged that the two companies shared the same offices. By refusing to respond to complaints EF gives the impression that it is not interested in being part of the local or City community.

But EF is not the only school to have students based in Headington. This year EmbassyCES are accommodating students in Brookes’ Clive Booth Hall. Whether there are others I don’t know. The writer of the first letter mentioned above says an Oxford resident told him there were 70 language schools in Oxford. This seems rather high: the City’s visitor information web page lists nine but doesn’t include EF or EmbassyCES possibly because they are not based in Oxford. The Daily Information website has 33, which seems very credible.

So what’s the trouble? The problems seem to be:

  • the young people have very little to occupy their time;
  • they go around in gangs;
  • they dominate the City centre rather than being assimilated into it, to the extent that residents and other visitors are deterred from being in the centre;
  • they show little awareness of or interest in the way their behaviour affects others;
  • they show little or no interest in learning about acceptable norms of behaviour;
  • they seem to spend most of their time talking to each other in their own language rather than trying to learn English;
  • they are rowdy, noisy, block the streets and pavements, misbehave and leave litter in our public spaces

and so on.

It is claimed by some that the language schools bring in a large amount of money to the local economy. It’s certainly true that they charge hefty fees. I haven’t been able to find EF Language Travel’s fees published. EmbassyCES’ most basic course, two weeks of a Certificate of English course with residential self-catering accommodation in a shared room costs £934 at this time of year. I couldn’t find any details about how much tuition time this includes, nor could I for EF Language Travel. I think (but can’t be sure) that when I looked last year their basic course included about 1 1/2 hours a day. I picked another school at random from the Council’s list – the Lake School of English based in Park End Street. Their Summer Intensive General English course (minimum 2 weeks) offers tuition for 21 hours a week (though there is a ‘semi-intensive’ option which offers just over 16 hours). Fees are £510 for 2 weeks plus extras of £100 (more if a visa is needed). Hotel accommodation (single room, private bathroom, bed and breakfast) is from £420 a week, which all adds up to £1450 for two weeks. Staying with a family is cheaper.

The question is, how much of this money is cycled back into the local economy? The schools presumably pay business rates and employ people in their offices, though I suspect the number of staff in each school is quite small. Local families acting as hosts are paid for their services. The schools will buy goods and services, hopefully locally, and all this is good. The students themselves don’t seem to spend much, though they have to buy food and we know some of them at least buy alcohol. On the other hand they cost the local community in policing, litter removal, and have some unquantifiable negative effect on non-language tourism.

Summer language schools and their students aren’t going to disappear, and it would be unfair for we locals to wish they would. Surely the great majority of the students are just ordinary kids, most from middle-class families (who can afford the fees), who in their own environment are as well or badly behaved as kids everywhere. It’s down to the schools to take action to alleviate the problems they cause rather than washing their hands of the whole issue. They should give them more structured activities to use up their time. They should insist they don’t go around in large groups instead of encouraging them to do just that. They should make cultural awareness (how to behave in a way that people here find acceptable) part of every course. They should provide them with things to do in the evenings rather than leaving them to their own devices. And they should accept there is a problem and they (the schools) are part of it. They must start to have a dialogue with the local community over how to make coming to Oxford a better experience for their students and less of a hassle for everyone else. We’d like to welcome the young people, but the schools make it hard.