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Home thoughts on abroad

The plight of a 14-year-old girl who returned early after a school exchange trip turned sour, should focus the minds of parents and teachers on the problems children can face on foreign soil, writes Mike Fielding

FORTUNATELY, allegations like those made by Newcastle teenager Aysha Hook of ill-treatment during a school foreign exchange visit, are rare. But no-one should under-estimate the demands made on young people by this kind of trip or what can go wrong.

Arriving once at our partner school in Brittany, after a 12-hour coach and ferry trip, I watched in amazement as a group of 14-year-olds - many of whom had never been out of Devon before - were sent off in the rain with families they'd never previously met or even spoken to. Suddenly, the singing and laughter of the coach ride seemed far away. Leaving friends and teachers, they were to spend the night with strangers whose language they couldn't speak and whose food and customs they knew little about. The bravery of most impressed me although it was clear that, for some, tears were close.

By morning two of them were demanding to go home. Rachel had been given "some horrible slimy things" (mussels) for supper and made to sleep on a camp bed in her partner's room while Michelle found herself the only female in a small apartment with her partner, his father and elder brother. The boy's mother had walked out the previous week but nobody had informed the school.

With diplomacy and good co-operation between French and English teachers both situations were resolved - Rachel was given the room of her partner's elder sister and Michelle swapped families with one of our male students. But, both youngsters had suffered sleepless agonies for 12 hours and become convinced that the holiday they'd planned and paid for over nearly a year was a disaster.

Alan's situation took longer to emerge. He had been partnered with a French boy in the early throes of love for one of his classmates. With only one thing in mind, Francois had no intention of letting a small and slightly immature English boy cramp his style and so left Alan to watch television with the family while he went out on the town. More diplomacy and some straight-talking from the French teacher made sure Alan got included when the groups of youngsters socialised together.

These, and many other, examples demonstrate the sensitivity required of teachers organising this kind of trip. The attraction is obvious: exchanges are a relatively inexpensive way to introduce children to a different culture and to develop their skills as visitors and (on the return visit) hosts. But the demands are heavy.

Pupils need to be well-prepared and clear about what to expect. So do their parents. Not, for instance, to panic when their child first phones and sounds a bit homesick. But, equally, not to ignore continuing expressions of unhappiness. Parents also need to realise that the strange food, unfamiliar customs and the struggle to understand the language are what, in the end, makes the exchange a learning experience.

They also need to think about how to make the return visit a success. Having a sullen, uncommunicative teenager who turns her nose up at any food you put in front of her and wants to survive on crisps is difficult enough when its your own child. When it's a foreigner it's worse.

One return visit from our German partner school coincided with the height of the BSE scare and, only days before the visit, we were told the children were under strict instructions from their parents to eat nothing produced from or by cattle - and this in an area highly dependent upon dairy farming for its economic survival! Needless to say, our parents were shocked and angry but refused to penalise the youngsters for what they believed was their parents' crassness and made great efforts to provide "safe" foods for them.

Teachers organising this kind of exchange need to pay as much attention to ensuring children and parents are fully briefed and understand exactly what's required as they do to the organisational and administrative demands which are usually considerable.

Whatever went wrong in Aysha Hook's case, it sounds as though more care might have been taken over the details of her placement. Despite the headteacher's curious insistence that she is "effectively white", it should have been made clear to the host school that racial sensitivities might be roused and the family with whom she stayed selected and briefed accordingly.

Nothing, of course, can entirely prevent youngsters feeling homesick, but recognising the degree of courage and determination re-quired to leave home and stay with a strange family in a foreign country, and making sure they are prepared for it will usually minimise the problems and ensure the visit is a success.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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