At the moment I’m working for an international summer school in Oxford. My employment contract forbids me from saying which one it is, and I can count at least ten competing summer schools, so there’s no risk of anyone guessing. Yesterday we had to go to the airport to pick up students. It was a complex operation which involved staff being dispatched to the various terminals, collecting students as they arrived on their flights then putting them in Terminal 1 for pick-up by coach.

Once a full coach was ready to go it was accompanied by more staff who made sure to ferry the students from the drop-off points in Oxford to their various colleges and accommodation areas. It was a tightly-run operation and planned in detail, everyone was briefed on their role from the very beginning. The entire day was supposed to run smoothly, but reality doesn’t work like that. Here’s a list of things which went wrong:

  • Coaches were put into a queue outside the terminal, there was a 30-40 minute gap between a coach being called and being ready to board.
  • This led to a build-up of students in Terminal 1, we had too many to get on coaches and all the coaches were delayed. Some students were held back in their arrival terminals and some of them were left in Terminal 1 for a few hours. Airport security got very tetchy after they realised that the group of students didn’t have anywhere to go. Short of calling in the airport police they did everything they could to move us on.
  • Students went off to the toilet and left their bags. Airport security tagged the bags as unattended luggage and wanted to take them to lost property. We had to fend off security until the students came back from the toilet.
  • Some students were held up by immigration as ‘unaccompanied minors’ because the terminal coordinator didn’t have authority to take them. This was a standard child-protection measure.
  • The British Olympic basketball team went through the arrivals area at around the same time as a separate flight holding many students. Most of these students were lost amongst the crowd.
  • One student booked a taxi two hours after their arrival. All students had to be accompanied by staff, so this one student had to be looked after in a terminal on their own while the rest of the staff had to deal with the other larger group of students getting on the coaches. Obviously it was quite inefficient to allocate one staff member to one student, so we offered them a place on the coach with the rest of the group. The student refused, and there was nothing we could do about it.
  • Due to all the disruption we had to improvise registers on the coach, this meant the last leg of the journey was spent frantically checking names and re-writing the registers we’d been given. There was plenty of opportunity to miss out a child completely or take on ‘ghost children’ whose names were on the register but not on the coach.
  • There was a bus crash on the M25. Fortunately it wasn’t one of ours, but it did block the motorway and led to extra delays of an hour for outgoing coaches.
  • Some students had way too much luggage to fit in the coaches, so bags had to be transported separately. This led to a whole new logistical nightmare of reuniting luggage with students. It didn’t help that these suitcases were huge and extremely heavy. What do people pack for an overseas summer school?

At the end of the day, we didn’t lose anyone, and all students were successfully moved from London to Oxford. I’m not sure what the students made of it.

I’m currently reading George Ritzer’s book on the ‘McDonaldization of Society’ and if anything this experience underlines the central point about rationalisation. Yesterday, I felt like the children in my care were as much cargo as the luggage they brought with them, and that’s sort of worrying.