School exchanges for the 21st century

The British Council highlights how schools can best provide intercultural experiences - either at home or abroad

Vicky Gough

The government has pledged £2.5m to allow more state school pupils to take part in international exchanges

School exchanges have formed an important and memorable part of many people’s language learning at school, but with funding tight and increasing pressures around child protection, the traditional school exchange has been in decline over the past decade.

Intercultural encounters are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world and most schools are acutely aware of this and keen to continue providing their students with opportunities for these and to use their language skills in a real-life context. 

International awareness and skills – such as the ability to connect with people globally – will become more vital than ever when the UK leaves the European Union, and many of the "soft skills" highly valued by employers can be developed through intercultural encounters and experiences.

The good news is that schools can still provide opportunities for intercultural encounters through traditional exchanges. Whether your school has a long history of running international student exchanges or you would like to start running exchanges to help motivate and enrich your students’ language learning, direct support and guidance is available from the British Council.

There are a number of helpful documents on the British Council’s Schools website, alongside a range of further advice and FAQs to help make planning your exchange as straightforward as possible, including an exchange starter pack; links to apply for funding; child protection guidelines; and additional guidance for headteachers from the Association of School and College Leaders.

If you don’t have a partner school, eTwinning might be a good place to start, and there’s also funding for school exchanges available through the Erasmus+ programme.

Enhance your school trip

Most secondary schools already organise international school trips for pupils, but often without the intercultural exchange that makes them such a unique learning experience. Small changes or additions will allow students to have an intercultural experience and take a lot more away from the visit.

Activities to boost intercultural encounters include:

  • Asking students to bring lunch money (as opposed to taking a packed lunch) so that they must interact with locals to buy their food.
  • Including a language bingo where students are provided with a list of language items in the second language that they must try to use in conversation, such as "Comment t'appelles-tu?"
  • A museum treasure hunt – if visiting an art gallery, museum or even a zoo, students could be tasked with finding a number of items, with target language phrases to help them: " se trouve…?"
  • Organising a walking tour with a local guide, who can provide authentic cultural expertise.
  • Visiting a local school. If you’ve booked your trip with a company, ask them to arrange a school visit or contact with native speakers.

International experience 'at home'

If an exchange visit isn’t possible, there are still ways of giving your students international experiences. The following create invaluable opportunities for pupils as standalone activities but can also enhance the learning outcomes of overseas visits.

  • Routes into Languages: Provide a variety of activities and events including competitions and cultural days across different regions, such as Journée de la Francophonie hosted by Aston University.
  • eTwinning: a range of projects and partnerships are available to suit the needs and wishes of a specific school/curriculum area.
  • Engage with experts around the world with Skype’s Guest Speakers. Use filters to search for volunteer guest speakers around the world in a variety of topics/subjects.
  • Host a teacher from another country. The Erasmus programme and the German Host a Teacher programme enable you to host a teacher from overseas. Experiences such as this not only give your students the chance to interact with people from different cultures, but can also provide invaluable CPD for teaching staff in both schools.
  • Invite in people/parents from the local community. Make the most of your local community by hosting parents and others from the community so they can get involved. Activities could range from story reading from different cultures for primary school students, to global performing arts showcases.
  • Theatre companies also provide a great way to get students engaged in intercultural work with a specific modern foreign languages focus.

Vicky Gough is schools adviser at the British Council

The International School Exchange programme offers funded travel grants for secondary schools in England to take pupils on international school visits through a £2.5million Department for Education programme in partnership with the British Council.

Vicky Gough

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