Headington Headlines #52

Here’s my weekly round-up of local news for 27 February – 4 March —

In a now-you-see-them now-you-don’t story that became known as #yellowlinegate road markings came in for criticism, particularly the double yellow lines across the road at the junctions of Latimer Road/London Road and Bickerton Road/Old Road. The story made the national news in the Mail Online, and was covered on BBC local TV and radio and the @BBCOxford website, as well as being debated on the e-democracy forum (see the "New Lime Walk and All Saints junction ‘improvements’" thread). You can watch the BBC video clip broadcast on Tuesday here. And then on Wednesday, the County Council started to remove them, or rather paint them black.

@LazyGamerUK finally opened to the public on Friday. Their shiny new website is also up and running. The launch is reported to have gone well. Discussion of the operation continues on the e-democracy forum under the “Costa Coffee” thread.

@OxfordCity have started another consultation on the flooding problems in Marston and Northway. Details on the Council’s website; Oxford Mail story. A public exhibition and consultation event is being held on Monday, March 19 from 12pm to 9.30pm in the Northway Community Centre.

EF International Academy, part of the larger EF operation on Pullens Lane (Headington Hill), held a public event on Friday and Saturday to explain their plans for the Cotuit Hall site they bought from Oxford Brookes last year. I wrote a note about it.

Marston local police published their March newsletter.

The City Council has written off business rates owed by The Six Bells and The Butcher’s Arms because “the debtors cannot be traced”.

My favourite Headington-related tweet this week:

I think the number of active topics on the Headington & Marston e-democracy forum this week is a record since I started reporting it:

  • New Lime Walk and All Saints junction “improvements”
  • The Friar Pub Marston and Tesco
  • Headington Ward Focus meeting leads to Headington Cycling Working Group
  • Bus Users UK Oxford Group AGM, Tue 28 Feb 2012
  • BUUK Meeting on 22 Mar
  • Costa Coffee
  • Cycles on the footpath
  • EF Academy plans for Cotuit Hall
  • Nasty looking Shark
  • Dorset House

I try to cover news from the OX3 postcode in Headington and out as far as Barton, Sandhills and Risinghurst (see map). To feed into next week’s summary you can comment on this article, or tweet either with the hashtag #ox3 or @mentioning @TonyOX3.

Cotuit Hall development plans

Cotuit Hall is the Victorian building on the corner of Pullens Lane and Harberton Mead. Although it’s in a Conservation Area Cotuit Hall is not a listed building. Behind the original Hall, which stands on a narrow plot, there are several newer buildings including two three-storey residential blocks. The whole site is well screened by mature trees. The Headington.org.uk website has the building’s history.

In May 2011 Cotuit Hall was sold by Oxford Brookes University to the EF International Academy, who plan to use it for students aged 16–18 taking two-year residential A-level or International Baccalaureate courses. The Academy is one of several operations run by EF on Headington Hill. EF wants to redevelop and refurbish the site and have appointed architects and planning consultants West Waddy ADP of Abingdon to manage the project. Together they held a small-scale open event on Friday 2 and Saturday 3 March to show their plans to the public. I went along to have a look.

EF wants to retain and refurbish the two existing residential blocks and link them with some new buildings. All the buildings will be lower than the Hall itself. They plan to retain the existing trees which form a mature and in places quite thick boundary around the site. They have surveyed the trees and their root spread so as to define the areas of the site on which building is feasible without damaging the trees. They say that because of the screening and relatively low height of the buildings they will not be intrusive in views of Headington Hill from the City. Access and movement between the buildings will be via a footpath to be built along the spine of the site. The existing entrance on Pullens Lane will remain the only access point, though a second gateway with some degree of security will probably be built inside the site behind the Hall.

I have no strong feelings about the development, and as long as EF and West Waddy’s assurances about the lack of visual intrusion are correct I can’t see any reason to oppose it. Local residents understandably may feel different and might have concerns about student numbers (likely to be over 200), noise and the possibility of anti-social behaviour. However, I think EF’s policy of confining these particular students – 16 to 18 year olds – to the School site during the day and having a number of staff resident on site might help avoid such problems. I’m sure there will be more public discussion on this over the coming months.

Aside from the development I took the chance of speaking to someone from EF about the public disquiet over language school students in Oxford in the summer months. This crops up every year: it comes round in the local papers, radio and tv, the e-democracy forum, my blog, and elsewhere. I last wrote about it in August last year. Since then there has been a meeting between the City Council, Police, bus companies and representatives of some language schools including EF. I encouraged EF to do more to keep in touch with the local community. They should, I believe, take the trouble to explain how they operate: that different EF companies offer different ‘products’ to different customers and not all EF students are the same. But they should realise that to the public EF is still a single brand and bad publicity from one part rubs off on the others. The summer ‘Language Travel’ students, here for just a couple of weeks with minimal time commitment and supervision, are almost certainly responsible for most of the complaints attributable to EF but their behaviour tarnishes all the others.

I want to stress that I am not blaming EF students for all the summer student problems. As I wrote last year there are dozens of language schools bringing thousands of young people to Oxford. EF is just one, but they happen to be in Headington and the students tend to be easy to identify with their branded clothing and accessories so they are very visible to Headington residents. I am sure EF would benefit by engaging more with the local community, by speaking with one voice regardless of which branch of the company is involved, and not hiding behind the screen of “no-one available for comment” which has sometimes happened in the past.

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.