They worry beforehand. Will they understand? How will they get on with their partners? But after a couple of days they are beaming. To see them on the last day is amazing. They get close to their partners and there are floods of tears when they leave." Paloma Renteria of Charters School in Sunningdale, Berkshire, is describing the student exchange she runs to the IES Marianao in Sant Boi de Llobregat near Barcelona. While exchanges elsewhere struggle to compete with more glamorous, less challenging options, Charters's programme is flourishing. Last year the school took 25 Year 9 pupils to France and 35 from Year 10 to Spain.
The school attributes its success partly to the strong personal relationships that have developed between staff in the participating schools, and also to the high profile languages enjoy at Charters. Several lower-school visits and activities foster a positive attitude, students are encouraged to take the double-language option in Year 10 and the headteacher joined staff on their first excursion to Spain.
"You have to sell it to the pupils - especially when the Spanish exchange clashes with the ski trip. But pupils know that it will be good for their oral skills and they rave about it when they come back. They talk at assemblies, write for the school magazine and put up displays," Paloma Renteria says.
It does demand a huge investment of time and energy, starting with the pairing in September and concluding in April, when the last diary is completed and certificates are awarded to pupils who have demonstrated maturity and responsibility. Pupils exchange their first e-mails in October and by the time they set off in February relationships are already established. They are also equipped with tips and strategies to help them break the ice. "The first evening can be difficult if no one knows what to say. We give them lists of prompts and tell them to take photos of their families, their house ... even their cat, anything that will give them something to talk about."
There is a full programme of activities, including a day in Barcelona and another at the seaside. "The school is in a small town and one of the things our pupils really enjoy is the freedom to go out with their partners and experience Spanish teenage life without an adult chaperon."
Highdown School, near Reading, has been taking pupils to Germany for many years. Like Charters, it enjoys steadfast support from senior management, a high take-up rate for two languages in Year 10 and a public relations campaign that starts in Year 8 for a trip that departs two years later. Preparation is thorough and includes language work from the Malvern Guide Mein Austausch, which the pupils use throughout their stay.
The head of German, Barbara Anderson, also makes sure students have strategies for settling in. "For example, go into the kitchen when mum or dad is cooking and ask to write down the recipe. Simple things make all the difference." Food is always a hot topic with the students. While those from Highdown come to terms with sauerkraut and Bavarian dumplings, their German counterparts are wary of parsnips, more commonly fed to cattle at home. "When we cover food in class, we have a tasting and I stress how important it is to be willing to try things."
Both schools require the pupils to keep a diary, which they write up when they come home. This contains a significant language element as well as a record of feelings and impressions and and other realia.
The two schemes differ in their approach towards school attendance on the exchange. While Charters students chill out on the beach, their Highdown counterparts beaver away in the classroom. Tailing your partner can soon become tedious, however, and special classes are arranged, fitted to the needs of the foreign visitors. In England, these include an introduction to local geography, a lesson on English castles and the chance to do a chemistry experiment - always a big hit, as science back home is strictly hands-off. "The whole school gets involved," says Barbara Anderson. "This is not just the languages exchange."
A highlight of the visit to Highdown is an informal reception with a cafe-style atmosphere. "Last year the German students sang a pop song they had prepared for us and one of their teachers played the guitar. Parents brought food for a tremendous spread."
Parents make a huge contribution to the exchange and Barbara Anderson gives them advice and support. "They really appreciate tips on dealing with foreign visitors. Little things, like serving meals in the centre of the table rather than plating them, which can be very daunting, especially when the food is unfamiliar. Or switching off the television and getting out the Monopoly or a pack of cards. I also advise them to treat the visitor as one of their own children. For example, if the partners come home late, they should tell both children off. That always goes down well and makes them feel secure. Once they get to know their guest, their worries disappear. As one mum once said, her exchange student was 'no different from our own daughter. She just has a different accent.'" Pupils, too, are apprehensive beforehand and are delighted to discover how much they have in common. "Teenage culture is international. They swap music, even clothes, and write down the lyrics of German pop songs. They are also bowled over by the generosity of the Bavarians and some partnerships have developed into enduring family exchanges. It is wonderful public relations for both countries. Sometimes pupils ask, 'How did we ever go to war? The Germans are so nice,'" Barbara Anderson says.
Comments like these illustrate how valuable an exchange can be in shifting insular attitudes and breaking down national stereotypes. Unfortunately, recent years have seen a steady decline in the number of participants. "Lack of pupil confidence is a major obstacle," says David Baker, the deputy head of Sir Bernard Lovell School, in South Gloucestershire. "Parents, too, are nervous about hosting and sending their sons or daughters off to places they don't know and this transmits itself to the children."
The school is adopting a variety of tactics to address the issue. From next October, Year 7 students will no longer head for Normandy or the Rhine valley for their first taste of foreign culture. Instead they will travel to areas where Sir Bernard Lovell has links - in Meaux, near Paris, and Bremen in Germany - which will allow them to become familiar with the partner school, meet the pupils and lose their fear of the unknown. The intention is to consolidate this afterwards through e-mail contact and joint projects, with a view to establishing relationships, building up confidence and engendering a more positive attitude towards the idea of staying in a foreign home.
Another strategy is to run trips which give students the opportunity to collaborate with their peers in classrooms abroad, even if they return to the safe haven of a youth hostel in the evening. One of these is a Year 11 excursion to Bremen, trialled last year with a group of intelligent but diffident girls. "They came back enthused," David Baker says. "Obviously, they would have gained even more from the experience if they had stayed in their partners' homes. But if the alternative is no visit at all, this is definitely worth doing."
Another way of inspiring pupils to take the plunge is to get involved in a Comenius language project, where the exchange is just one element in a year-long programme. Chessington Community College in Kingston upon Thames linked with a school in the Czech town of Brno. Twenty-two students from Years 10 and 12 worked with their Czech partners to produce an 80-page bilingual guide to Prague and Brno, containing information on places to visit, things to do and life in a Czech family, with pictures, evaluations and star ratings. Throughout the year, the London group met weekly at lunchtimes to draw up plans, fax or e-mail their partners and take lessons in survival Czech.
"The aim was to introduce them to a minority language and give them an insight into another culture," says the college's cultural co-ordinator, Audrey Giles. During their two-week stay in the Czech Republic, the students visited the places they had chosen to feature in the guide, and social events included trips to the cinema and the local leisure centre. Parents organised social events and on two more formal occasions every student was expected to speak a few words in Czech out of courtesy to their hosts.
The project is now complete, but the link lives on and has generated so much enthusiasm that Audrey Giles has instigated several other international projects involving staff and pupils. She believes they have huge educational value, in terms of widening horizons and developing maturity. "The students impressed us enormously," she says. "One or two were very nervous at first. Some had never flown before, most had never stayed in someone's home. When they came back they had a great sense of achievement."
'Face to Face: learning language and culture through visits and exchanges' (CILT). Available from booksellers and from CILT's distributor, Central Books Ltd, tel: 020 8986 4854.
'My Exchange' (French, German and Spanish). Malvern Guides, tel: 01684 577433.
Comenius language projects: information from the British Council, tel: 020 7930 8466.Web: http:www.britishcouncil.orgcbietsocratessoccom1b.htmapp