Last term, Midhurst Intermediate School, West Sussex, and Arsene-Meunier College, Nogent-le-Rotrou, near Chartres, exchanged language teachers for three weeks. The schools have exchanged pupils since l978 but this latest move was the most ambitious to date.
The teachers, Sandy Monk and Jean-Claude L'homme, intended to refresh their linguistic skills, but the real purpose of the exchange was to share different educational philosophies and classroom cultures - differences which were reflected in trivial as well as more fundamental ways.
One morning during the first week, Sandy was surprised to see rows of empty desks at the start of the lesson. Her mistake was to arrive ahead of her pupils - normal practice at Midhurst - but a Nogent teacher arrives with the children and leads them into the classroom.
She found she was only expected to be present in class when teaching was going on while Jean-Claude at Midhurst discovered you had to be on hand for other things. Three times a week he had to attend short staff meetings to hear about important events and share plans for the day. At Nogent, that type of communication is mostly by noticeboard.
There was the school assembly, which at Midhurst can be quite a lively affair. Once, Jean-Claude was impressed to see the rest of the staff with guitars, mouth organs and castanets, leading the children in folk singing.
He took his turn to supervise the mid-morning and lunch breaks and to do bus duty after school, tasks that at home would be done by surveillants, usually university students working their way through college. After hours on a Wednesday, there was the French club to help with.
In terms of actual teaching, Sandy found the French approach traditional. At Midhurst she regularly supplements the basic syllabus with additional material, and to accommodate mixed ability groups within the same class she often sets several different homework assignments.
The normal practice at Nogent, however, was for the teacher to stick religiously to a single textbook and work through it chapter by chapter, section by section. Pupils were mildly surprised when she introduced new material, though as time went on they began to enjoy the variety, especially the top groups.
Marking procedure came as a pleasant change. Instead of staggering home every night with piles of books, she could leave her pupils to do the marking themselves from the blackboard the following day.
In addition to regular homework, teaching in France is strongly reinforced by systematic testing. It happens in all subjects approximately every three weeks at key stages in the syllabus - at the end of a chapter or teaching segment, and, true to French practice at many levels of education, marks are out of 20. "Pupils take the tests very seriously," says Sandy, "and knowing that they count towards the term report that goes to their parents, they exert themselves to do well."
For both teachers, the exchange was a learning experience. Sandy, impressed by Arsene-Meunier's emphasis on the academic process and motivation of the children, may increase the pressure on her classes at Midhurst and talk to her colleagues about alternative approaches to testing and homework. Jean-Claude may want to give his pupils more scope for developing their own response to the concepts presented, instead of working through standard exercises. And having taken home some new display material he may try and get Arsene-Meunier to make more use of student work for decorating the corridors and classrooms.
But it was the role of the school itself more than classroom practice that revealed the greatest difference to him. As he saw children taking time out of class to learn a musical instrument, hosting a visit by a famous American basketball player, or participating with the support of their parents in a Rotary public speaking contest, he recognised that Midhurst Intermediate plays a much larger part in the life of the child beyond the textbook.
There's not much he can do about importing that even if he wanted to. This touches on deep national cultural differences formed across generations of teachers and pupils - differences, thankfully, well beyond the reach of Brussels's most ardent integrationists.
Stephen Quigley hosted Jean-Claude L'homme's visit to Sussex.