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Cross-Channel trips are sinking

Exchange visits are a valuable experience, not a skive, writes Bridget Patterson

The French school we run our exchange trips with has 18 students keen to take part this year. I have seven. This says a great deal about the comparative awareness of the importance of language learning. But it is also a sad reflection of English students' reluctance to get involved in anything outside their pressurised timetable.

Pupils, their parents - and even some colleagues - seem to think that going abroad on an exchange is somehow time off. It is, of course, a huge learning experience, and not just for improving language skills. Students learn how to adapt to what may be a very different family life and culture, how to work with people they don't know and how to cope with less-than-perfect communication skills. They gain enormously in confidence and independence, and they always comment on how much better they have got to know each other, as well as their French partners.

So how can you get this across? I always invite the previous year's participants to talk to the new intake about what it was like and try to enthuse them. I emphasise the importance of being able to hold a conversation in French and increasing the level of understanding to help with the speaking part of the AS and A2 exam.

They understand this, but, in practice, many are unwilling to risk it. Comments such as: "Oh no, I'd be worried I couldn't understand anyone or speak to them," make me despair as I point out that you can't learn a language by sitting in a classroom. And I wonder what makes them choose to carry on with French beyond GCSE if they don't want to go and find out what France is like.

Then there are the parents who ring to complain that their child will be missing school, without appearing to understand that the exchange will be a highly educational experience. There may be perfectly good reasons why a family does not to want to take part, such as the lack of room at home for a visitor, but there remains a resistance to the idea which makes it difficult to win them over.

And now, of course, there is the almost insurmountable obstacle of AS exams. One bright student, who would be certain to benefit greatly, told me he couldn't possibly go as he would miss eight maths lessons.

Other students also worry about missing work - even though the dates have been carefully agreed with the French school so we go to France after the January modules and the French return before revision for the next lot start. This is not easy, as holiday dates don't coincide on either side of the Channel.

So why not organise the exchange during holiday time, I hear you ask.

Partly because of the difficulties outlined above, but also because staff are increasingly unwilling to give up their holidays when term time is so exhausting. As for myself, holidays are the only time I get to see my scattered grown-up children and their offspring. And as I'm not getting any younger, I badly need recuperation time too.

Bridget Patterson is head of post-16 guidance at Northgate high school, Ipswich

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