Monthly Archives: January 2016

Hey Teacher! Leave those kids alone! A Careers Adviser Writes

One of my celebrity cab customers over the last few years was Nicky Morgan MP, whom I found a pleasant and polite lady.  As a qualified careers adviser I followed her move to Minister for Education with interest.

Recently, she’s been lamenting the downfall of quality impartial careers advice in school (we have the Labour party to thank for the de-professionalisation of the careers service about ten years’ ago).  Interestingly, she criticised the promotion of academic learning at the expense of vocational learning, such as apprenticeships.  Good luck in getting impartial careers advice back into schools, but schools will resist any move towards impartial advice, or the promotion of anything that takes bums off seats in their precious sixth forms. How I remember trying to do such a thing as a probationary careers adviser at Mereway School in Northampton.  The headmaster called me into his office.  He told me bluntly that he was trying to build his sixth form up and that Northampton College (of further education) could do their own publicity.  He didn’t want to see me handing out college prospectuses (prospecti?).  It was a traumatic event.  He damn near gave me the cane – something I experienced back at my Essex Comprehensive. I wish I could remember the c***s name, but I can’t.  I didn’t work in his school much more after that, and my disillusionment with what was left of the careers service, and the so-called professional world, in general, started to take hold.

Sadly, even when schools aren’t trying to shape people’s lives with their twisted agendas, society tells youngsters that apprenticeships aren’t as good as academic courses.  Middle class kids are brainwashed into thinking they have to go to university to succeed – and make their parents proud (the bigger factor here).  Someone going into plumbing or hairdressing can strive to start their own businesses and not end up like those boring drones who I drive around from meeting to meeting in the City. Or drive home with a stop off for a meal-for-one).

Had I done an apprenticeship I might be able to do something useful.  My several years of academic wankery were great fun, but you wouldn’t ask me to put shelves up, or put up a light fitting without electrocuting myself.  I wouldn’t be able to hang wallpaper – though in fairness I could write a passable short story about it.  Considering the largest part of my portfolio career is driving a cab it’s a bit shameful that what goes on under the bonnet still remains a mystery.  My two degrees are useless when my cab starts making funny noises and I’m at the mercy of blokes at the garage who know how things work in a practical way.

Anyway, this is about the only time I’ve written about careers since leaving Connexions Northamptonshire six years’ ago.  It was quite a nice company called Career Path, before the government fucked it up.  I left before I was pushed, took voluntary redundancy, and went back on the cab.  I’ve always had problems with authority and driving and writing suits me better.

(It’s late at night, I’ve just done a day in London, and I’m tired.  Please excuse any bad spelling, grammar, or any other issues that I could have ironed out with more judicious editing).




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Credit Card Acceptance in London Taxis

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Changes on the Cards
For those of you dithering over whether to take the plastic bag off your credit card reader, your dilemma may soon be over: If TfL have their way, from October, London taxi drivers will be compelled to accept credit card payments.
Over the last few years we’ve been bombarded by propaganda from the card suppliers (hereafter known as The Man). They tell us everyone wants to pay by card. This still isn’t quite the case, but I’ve personally noticed a surge in demand over the last few months – possibly by those who use our competitors and have got used to the idea of paying on credit. I don’t think it’s right we’ve been told how to run our businesses, but only a cave dweller will not have realised that they’re losing out by insisting on cash payment. I would have lost a lot of quality jobs had I not the ability to take cards: Oxford and Reading from Pancras, and a few Heathrows from hotels, where those on the rank sat helpless in their Cash Only cabs.
I started to accept cards nearly five years’ ago when I joined a radio circuit, but I can understand why some people resist. Processing a card can be a little bit fiddly and time-consuming, but it’s still not as stressful as waiting on yellow lines while your passenger queues at a cashpoint. Many drivers are part time and don’t think it’s worth getting involved in button-pushing. You’re relying on technology, and sometimes things go wrong. In the case of credit card processing, you sometimes doubt whether payment’s gone through or not. You have that nagging fear that the plum job you just did to Terminal Five will turn to disaster if the transaction fails when the passenger is half way back to Zurich. I’ve never had that happen, but I still worry about it.
We’re told that from October, drivers will pay a surcharge: less than 3% according to TfL. It’ll be free to customers. I currently pay £1 per transaction as part of my Pay as you Go deal with ComCab. The passenger pays 10%. I feel uncomfortable charging a customer 10%, but I suppose someone has to pay The Man who supplies the technology. There are several different set ups available now, so just find one you’re comfortable with. There are already options available that are free for both drivers and customers. These days we need at least two strings to our bow, and it’s always worth trying a radio circuit or app provider too.
The thing about all this that irks is the fact that we’re being told what to do. Many of us went into this job because we don’t like being told what to do! I don’t know what TfL have against cash. In fact, I’d say it was none of their flaming business how we choose to be paid. I’m sure many visitors to London are caught out when they try to board a bus without an Oyster Card. When planning my holiday in Majorca I didn’t consider myself negligent for not researching the island’s bus payment policy. I assumed cash would be welcome, as I’m sure visitors to London do. I’m sure the public didn’t respond to a survey to say they never want the opportunity to pay cash to board a bus, and that nobody else should either. When London Transport got rid of bus conductors they slowed everything down. It seems like they’re trying to make amends out of desperation.
Cash has traditionally been our bread and butter, and it still gives us an advantage over the card-only apps. But we need to move with the times and embrace technology, whether we want to or not. There probably isn’t anything we can do about the decision to make card acceptance compulsory, so we might as well swallow the pill, however bitter it might taste. We can’t afford to lose money individually, and we can’t afford to turn down work collectively. The ruling could well prove positive, as announcements that all London cabs can process cards – and with no fee – will be gold-plated publicity. We’re seen as dinosaurs by some of our detractors, so let’s prove them wrong and take some work back. If we start now we can get a head start and be up and running when it’s made compulsory. Ultimately, the decision might be for the best.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2015.

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In the Chair

As an introduction, my name is Chris Ackrill, and I’ve recently completed my second period as a Knowledge of London Examiner. Since leaving, I’ve been overwhelmed with questions about the Knowledge and how to handle things at the New Towers – or whatever the new office is known as. It’s been impossible to answer every individual question put to me, but I have noted the most common questions asked and issues raised, and I shall address them in a series of articles for CallOver.
Security have let you into the back entrance at 230 Blackfriars Road, and you have been deemed a fit and proper person to be examined on your Knowledge. Well done for getting this far. Many others will have given up before the Appearance stage.
If you’ve bowed to convention you’ll be wearing a suit and tie. The guidelines don’t stipulate a suit, but examiners tend to be a conservative bunch, so best play it safe. Can I leave the tie off on Dress Down Friday? I hear you ask. Best not. You might see staff walking around in jeans and Led Zeppelin T-shirts, but you will notice that your examiner sticks to traditional values. When I suggested to a colleague that I might dress casually on a Friday I was told that I’d be ostracised by the other examiners. That was me told. This isn’t the real world, it’s TfL
Get yourself a cup of water in the reception area if you want. You can take your water into the examination room, but drink it from a cup. Examiners don’t like candidates glugging back bottles. Not only is it off-putting, but it could be seen as a delaying tactic.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Your name is called and you follow the examiner into their room. Have your appointment card ready for the examiner, and take a seat when asked to. Not before. And don’t move the chair either. All your examiners have seen the film, The Knowledge, and know Nigel Hawthorne’s “Pickfords?” retort to any would-be furniture removal operatives. Some of us would have our day spoiled by someone moving the chair six inches forward. Petty? Perhaps; but examiners spend most of their day in that little room and they’re precious about their space. Handshakes are traditionally left until you get your Req. You can remove your jacket and loosen your tie, but ask first.
Male examiners are addressed as “Sir” and female examiners as “Ma’am”. Like the Queen. The occasional wide boy will try “Mate” and “Darling”. If you remember that “Darling” starts with a “D” it’ll help you to focus on the task.
Few examiners have personal items on their desks – the regime doesn’t encourage that sort of thing – but I guess if they do, the items are there to be admired. But not touched. Whatever you do, don’t upset a certain examiner’s arrangement of coloured pens, particularly if Chelsea have just had a bad result. If you get to discuss football, or last night’s Coronation Street, you can rightly feel privileged. An examiner sees up to sixteen people a day and there isn’t much time for chit chat. Please don’t be offended by brusqueness if the last candidate has put the examiner behind schedule. Some people think they’ve been called in late when they haven’t. Your card gives the time you’re expected to report to reception, not when you’re scheduled to be examined.
Nerves and Sickness
If examiners believe everything they’re told, then Knowledge candidates are the sickest individuals known to man. It’s accepted that an advanced warning of illness is often used to excuse a poor performance. Be assured that as soon as you start to say how illness has prevented you getting out on the bike, he’ll be reaching for his red pen in anticipation. A busy examiner doesn’t need to hear about your illnesses, or your family’s illnesses (I never actually had a pet’s illness cited as an excuse for a below-par performance, but I admit I might be swayed by the image of little Tiddles sitting at home with a bad cough).
If you are sick, postpone. Examiners don’t want folk coughing and spluttering in their confined space. You won’t be penalised for re-arranging your appearance.
Being nervous is natural, healthy even. The appearance means a lot to you and being nervous shows you care. Nervousness can sharpen you up and focus you. But if it’s extreme it might affect your performance. How you handle nerves was probably the most common question I was asked as an examiner. There is no definitive answer, as people cope with stress in different ways. You need to explore yourself to find your own individual answer. Thinking back to my own appearances, I’d say confidence came from knowing I’d been working reasonably hard, and that I stood a good chance of answering the questions reasonably well.
Many people think they are the most nervous person the examiner has seen that week/month/ever, but most people show nerves. Don’t try to get sympathy by a theatrical display of puffing and panting though. Examiners can sniff out the people who haven’t been working hard, and have a pretty good idea whether a poor performance has been caused by nerves or laziness.
The Right Room for an Argument?
Politely questioning the examiner’s decision is acceptable if you think a mistake has been made, but do it before you leave. The examiner won’t remember the intricacies asked of every run asked on every day, so there’s no point phoning up a week later to argue the toss. Mistakes will be put right if they are proved. Illegal turns are usually noted on your file. If you want to query something at a later date, contact the Knowledge Manager.
Does all all this sound scary? Just think of your examiner as a fellow cab driver. They want you to succeed, and they’re not trying to catch you out. They’ve all been through what you’ve been through. There’s a strange protocol in the Knowledge world, but you’ll soon get used to it. You’ll even be laughing about it in years to come.
Next month I’ll look at the sorts of questions you might get asked and how to handle them.
All my cab writings are available on my blog:
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2015.

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