It's always a pleasure to play host to students from abroad, and, of course, their francs, marks, pesetas and yen are very welcome. But in small towns such as Brighton, their numbers can cause problems, writes Ian Cowmeadow
The coach lurches forward to claim another five yards in the traffic jam along the front. The intercom crackles. "Welcome, people of the world," says Steve the courier. "On our right we have the West Pier. It's broken." Fifty foreign students, on a tour of Brighton and Hove where they have chosen to learn the English language, strain to see the shimmering wreck which some locals regard as a romantic ruin, and others as an eyesore.

Reactions to these students, and to the 30,000 others who attend the town's 20 language schools each summer, are just as mixed. Nationally, there are nearly 2,000 colleges offering English language tuition to foreign students aged from eight upwards.

Recent figures show that, despite the recession and competition from the United States, the numbers coming here to learn our language are rising fast. Next year, the Association of Recognised English Language Services (Arels) anticipates around 620,000 students will spend an average of four and a half weeks crowding out buses, "jabbering" loudly, and contributing pounds 700m in invisible earnings to the British economy.

Most of the language schools are based in the south of England, with a large number in London. The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, and South Coast resorts from Bournemouth to Hastings, are also plagued or blessed, according to perception, with a huge summer influx of foreign students.

"Schools want to maintain a good relationship with their host communities," says Oksana Higglesden, a spokeswoman for Arels, "and they make a lot of effort to help their students understand the British way of life. At the same time, local residents should remember that the industry brings in quite a lot of money to their area, particularly through tourist attractions and retail. It's a two-way thing."

That is probably not what the lads gesticulating wildly at the coach from the smoked windows of their car have on their minds. But no one on the tour seems to be offended by them, perhaps because they had already seen the induction video for new students, sent out by Arels to all its member schools. In this they are advised: "Have a great time here in Britain, but please remember to be considerate, polite and helpful - you will find we are, too."

The video is a new initiative, launched in March this year, and is a recognition of the fact that problems between students and local communities need to be addressed. It covers accommodation, the law and peculiarities of British culture. "British people love to queue at any opportunity," says the voice-over. "Find the end of the queue and stand there. If you go to the front of the queue or push in, you might make some of the people who have been waiting quite angry."

The language schools see politeness as a key tool in smoothing relations with the locals. As Richard Ride, director of the Embassy Language School in Hove, says: "We are very closely in tune with the local community, but it's a bit like if you are going to have a party in your flat; it is polite to let the neighbours know."

Most foreign language students are put up with local families for the duration of their stay. This is probably the most intimate point of contact between the industry and the community, with many families welcoming the opportunity to earn extra income. Those wishing to take in a student or two - Arels rules permit a maximum of three per family - are closely vetted by accommodation and welfare officers employed by the schools.

"We don't want to find that the family is moving one of its kids out to make room for the students," says Mr Ride, "or that the house is dirty. Obviously, we would not be impressed if there were some sort of lager lout sitting there watching TV and being introduced as Dad."

Impressions count for a great deal in the relationships between people of different nations, it seems, and we are not the only people who indulge in racial stereotyping. To those excitable Latin types, to the suave French, and even to the punctilious Germans, the British are polite only because they would be too embarrassed to be otherwise. The perceived other side of the British character is an innate thuggishness. As leader of Hove Council, Ivor Caplin is keen to see the foreign students made welcome, but he is aware of a continuing problem.

"They are a very important part of our community," he says, "but it is regrettable that those who are not directly involved with them, particularly youngsters, see them as targets. Every time they see a few students with their bags, there is a chance to be abusive to them. I think that some of the Eurosceptic utterings of some MPs drives this feeling that anyone who comes and visits is somehow a threat."

Every year there is a depressingly familiar rash of attacks, thefts and other incidents marking the tensions between the foreign students and local youths. This year's ignominious highlight was the stabbing of a Russian student in a park west of Hove. In keeping with the imminent combining of Brighton and Hove into a unitary authority, the two police divisions joined forces this year to mount Operation Chaffinch with the aim of beating this kind of crime.

The operation was a response to the scale of the problem each summer, and to a growing awareness that the students are being targeted by criminals. Geographically, attacks tend to occur where the visitors gather in large numbers. Churchill Square, Brighton's main shopping centre, and the King Alfred Leisure Centre in Hove, are particular problem areas, as is Southwick, an area of West Hove where there is a concentration of host families and consequently large numbers of students returning from town on late-night buses.

Chief inspector Andy Bliss, in charge of the operation, feels that by identifying the type of incident that occurs, the police can act more effectively.

"Probably the most common offence is theft," he says. "Many of these students come from places where they can be more relaxed with their belongings; they don't all come from big cities. A lot of the crime is opportunistic, but that does not make it any less frightening or upsetting for the victims. We send out leaflets to the schools, in several languages, explaining the basics of crime prevention."

The problem of language has been one of the key concerns of Operation Chaffinch, and although the police have access to 24-hour interpreters, these are of little use in the immediate aftermath of an attack. "When a student is attacked," explains Bliss, "a quick description is needed by the PCs, who often turn up within three or four minutes of the incident, so that they can alert nearby patrols. This year we have introduced descriptive forms in about five languages where we can just ask an individual to tick appropriate boxes. That can be done in moments and it's proving quite effective."

Most local people are appalled by any crime against foreign students, feeling a sense of shame and anger at the damage done to their town's reputation for hospitality and tolerance. The actions of a Brighton bus- driver last month in rescuing a German student from a gang of youths in Shoreham High Street stand as a good representation of local feeling.

All the same, irritations remain. Pressures placed on the transport system by the language students, for example, often lead to friction and resulted in 32 formal complaints to Brighton and Hove Bus Company in July, a figure that Martin Harris, marketing and publicity manager, describes as "the tip of the iceberg".

Informal complaints are heard by drivers at the wheel, such as Gary Phillips. "Usually it's to do with overcrowding," he says. "The regulars get upset, especially the yearly season ticket holders. I try to tell them that the students have paid too, but they don't see it that way. It's difficult when you get as many as 500 students all wanting to come home from Preston Park at the same time, even with the extra buses we put on."

The bus companies - there are two main outfits in Brighton and Hove - have put a lot of effort into improving the situation. They liaise regularly with the schools, lay on extra services and have introduced more pre-paid tickets to avoid the problem of students with limited English trying to get their tongues around the names of local destinations. At one time they even offered to send their drivers to night school to learn French or German, but the drivers were not that keen, and, anyway, many students now come from Russia or the Far East.

For the drivers, the problems have practical roots and could be solved by the language schools agreeing to such initiatives as staggering their lessons and activities to avoid overcrowding. The behaviour of the students themselves, it seems, has improved noticeably. "They teach them these strange English words," says Phillips, "like 'please' and 'thank you'."

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