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Busman's holiday is learning Spanish

A shared passion for education has helped the Spark family put a group of Merseyside bus drivers on the road to learning.

Arriva North West and Wales is paying for 60 drivers to take part in foreign language classes in Merseyside, mostly in Spanish.

Classes are held at centres including Liverpool community college, Liverpool Hope university college and Birkenhead sports social club in association with West Cheshire college.

Not to mention Arriva's Hall Street garage in St. Helens.

Half of the students meet each Wednesday night in a first-floor office at the garage, for two hours of conversational Spanish with Daryl Spark, 24, whose father Derek is a driver on the routes between St Helen's and Warrington.

Nick Gordon, of Arriva, said: "After hearing that the company was willing to support employees in learning a foreign language, Derek decided not only that he would he would take up the offer, but, as his son Daryl is a qualified teacher, it would be good to get Daryl involved."

Derek Spark says it was his son's idea to hold weekly classes at the garage.

And the fact that Daryl was known to some of the drivers encouraged more of them to sign up than might otherwise have been the case.

"Some of the class show quite an aptitude," says Daryl Spark, 24. "I think it would encourage more people to learn if more companies were to run courses like this at the place of work."

"When learners have something in common, such as their employer, the class becomes a social event, an attraction.

"It's also an 'event' that gives people an opportunity to learn a skill, an opportunity that some may not have had at school or may not have appreciated it at the time.

"There's no messing about at all. They want to learn. They're adults, and they're there through choice."

Derek Spark says: "Everybody's trying to help each other.

"If you have to miss a class because of work, at the next class Daryl will go through what was done the previous week, and the others will bring you in some stuff they did.

"Would you get that at night school?"

Daryl's Uncle Wilf drives between St Helen's and Liverpool. Wilf is chairman of the garage's sports and social club.

Fifty one members went on a week's trip to Spain in May.

Wilf said: "You could see that, with us trying to speak Spanish, the Spanish people look quite pleased that we were trying to speak their language, and they seemed to try and carry on a sentence with you."

Some class members are now considering night school to continue learning Spanish, Wilf Spark says, adding that next year's club excursion poses a challenge. It's to Portugal.

Arriva's decision to pay for employees' language tuition is the latest in a series of moves by the company to take on a more sensitive approach towards the needs of foreign visitors.

Liverpool was named last year as European Capital of Culture for 2008.

Some bus routes into the city have been rebranded under the name "Le bus".

On some vehicles, a recorded message in French, German, Japanese and Spanish announces "Welcome to Liverpool".

Nick Gordon, of Arriva, said: "The company then decided to offer drivers the chance to learn a foreign language.

"Although we arrange customer-care training ourselves, we thought it would be better if drivers picked the language course of their choice at a teaching centre convenient for them."

The fact that Liverpool won European Capital of Culture status could attract 1.7m extra visitors to Merseyside.

Bob Hind, North West and Wales managing director of Arriva, said: "Buses will play a huge part on helping visitors to travel across the region in what will be a very important year for Liverpool."

To make to most of its one year of glory, Liverpool's city council is going further and having a theme for each year until 2010.

This year, it's the "Year of Faith in One City", but in 2003, when Liverpool was picked as a future capital of culture, the theme was the "Year of Learning".

The city's historical importance as a major port brought trading links with South America and there is a longstanding Hispanic department at Liverpool university.

A Liverpool spanish circle of speakers and learners regularly meets in a Chilean restaurant, the Valparaiso in Hardman Street.

And just in case you want to drop in, Arriva's bus numbers 73, 75, 80, 80A and 86 all stop close by.

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