“Don’t do it!” “You must be mad!” “You’ll regret it!” “Exchanges are a minefield of problems!”
This is just a selection of the “advice” that came my way when I was toying with the idea of setting up our first ever exchange. Given that only 29 per cent of UK secondary schools participate in exchanges, I did question whether we were doing the right thing – particularly as my school serves one of the 10 per cent most economically deprived communities in Europe and has a proportion of disadvantaged students (42 per cent) that eclipses the national average.
Yet we had dreamed of establishing a link with a French school for years and now, despite a number of setbacks, we have finally achieved it, thanks to our existing relationship with the University of Toulon on the French Riviera.
For the past few years, we’ve been recruiting languages undergraduates from the university as interns, one of whom was still in contact with her old school in Toulon. When she informed us of its own long-running desire to set up a partnership with a British school, we jumped at the opportunity.
The curtain has just fallen on our first ever exchange, which was planned, organised and executed less than a year after the initial link was established. Eleven students from Toulon came to us in March to study in our school, live with students and their families in the local community and take part in cultural visits. In May we embarked on a reciprocal visit to Toulon, leaving students with unforgettable memories, friendships and experiences to last a lifetime.
Recruiting school exchange participants
Recruitment was a big challenge for us. Persuading students (and families) that this would be a valuable experience was not easy – particularly as many families in our community have little experience of meeting French people or travelling in France. Most students struggled to come to terms with the idea of having a stranger living in their house, and in return having to live with a family they had never met.
Effective advertising was essential. We needed to look students in the eye and explain the incredible experience that awaited them; to see their excitement (and apprehension); to answer their questions, enthuse them and quash any fears. For this reason, I chose to present to half of each year group separately, in a more personal environment than a whole-school assembly hall.
Ultimately, 11 students and families took part. This was less than we’d hoped but offered a platform for us to work with. Our goal now is to double uptake for 2020, which, given the buzz around school when our French friends visited, should be much easier.
Safeguarding checks for school exchanges
We allayed the concerns raised by families and senior leaders regarding safeguarding and the checks they would be subjected to by conducting home visits to assess the suitability of host families and accommodation. We also asked parents to sign a contract stipulating safeguarding policies, which included a plan for activities while in host families.
The county council required us to complete 13 different risk assessments, ranging from transport, overseas and homestay assessments for our students’ trip to Toulon to city and events and theme park risk assessments for our French visitors over here. Completing these risk assessments was portrayed to me as a “minefield of problems” but we found that the best way to overcome this was through effective planning and time management. It was time-consuming, yes, but not impossible.
We also needed to find a way to ensure student safety during their time with host families in France. This was achieved by staff carrying a school mobile phone, with the number given to students and parents. Students had to check in by text message when they were home each evening, and twice during their full day with host families, so that we could ensure their safety. They were also issued with a keyword which they could use in case of emergency – thankfully this was never needed!
Organising the finer details of a school exchange
We also had to consider how our students would cope with a culture different from their own. One of them, who was aged just 12, felt very homesick to begin with, and others struggled a little with the different foods, warm-weather climate and life in a French family. Staff kept in touch daily with students and encouraged them to share their feelings, which allowed us to support and reassure them and to closely monitor their emotions and care for them accordingly.
One of the biggest differences between an exchange and a trip organised through a travel company is that, with an exchange, the organisation of everything is in your hands – itinerary, budgeting, accommodation, meals, transport and bookings. It would have been impossible for me to have managed all of this alone – delegation and teamwork was crucial.
I advise anyone looking to embark on an exchange to start planning early – and certainly no later than nine months before the first leg. Meeting with my principal, finance manager and educational visits coordinator regularly, to map out an itinerary that was cost-effective and in line with our budget, was crucial.
Coordinating the home-leg of school exchanges
A challenge on the home leg of our exchange was balancing the pressure of working and hosting simultaneously – particularly when we had "the call" from Ofsted 12 hours before the French students’ arrival. However, what at first felt like disaster quickly became an opportunity to showcase our exchange as one of the many life-enhancing and personal development experiences we offer to students. Delegation (particularly regarding organisation of bookings, payments and transport) and team spirit ensured a calm and enjoyable experience for all.
A staff concern (particularly relevant with the Ofsted visit) was the impact of the exchange students on seating and adaptation. My main advice was to teach lessons as normal but to involve exchange students (build them into seating plans, rearrange desks where necessary, use their name, print resources for them, question them and allow them to be a part of the lesson and live the life of a student in our school).
The fact that only 29 per cent of secondary schools offer an exchange is a sad statistic. It is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a teacher and a school, and has left us with an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement at seeing our students challenge themselves, develop life- and interpersonal skills and become more resilient, confident and culturally aware.
It was an honour for my principal and I to speak recently at the House of Lords about the importance of exchanges. It left us feeling that in times of uncertainty, both in our context of organising an exchange for the first time and also in the broader national and European political picture, it is so important that the tradition does not disappear.
James Edwards is head of modern foreign languages at Shirebrook Academy