Exchanges don't have to be about learning a language. British and French fashion students are visiting each other and finding a common thread. Jane Marshall follows them
The workshop is spacious and full of light from a wall of windows, beneath which sit a line of computers on a bench. There are rows of electric sewing machines, irons resting tidily on their boards, tailor's dummies standing in corners. Seven young women are sitting around two big tables, working out sections of paper pattern, transferring them to lengths of silk lining and lustrous brocade, then carefully cutting out panels for what will become 19th-century-style bustiers.
Laura Axiaq, Husnara Begum, Nadya Bynum, Saphina Clear, Judy Kim, Rachael Philip and Liza Prial are British students of fashion from Hackney community college in Shoreditch, east London. Aged between 16 and 19, they are starting their placement in an exchange programme with the Lycee Flora Tristan in Montereau, 50 miles south-east of Paris. Over the next two weeks they will mix with French pupils at Flora Tristan and complete their projects. There will also be a tour of Paris, including visits to a bridalwear company to follow the manufacturing process from design to completion, and a trip to the Opera House to see its collection of costumes.
The French students have already had their turn at living ... l'Anglaise - staying with "typical English families", learning new techniques at the London college, visiting fashion stores, sightseeing and marvelling at traditions such as pubs and morning milk deliveries.
For their project at Shoreditch they reconstructed white shirts into designs inspired by the 16th century. "Each pupil researched the era and found the fabric, then they adapted the shirts, each of them different, so they are fashionable and wearable today," says Paul Zilli, head of vocational and technical education at Flora Tristan.
The students' work abroad will count towards their final qualifications - a BTEC for the British and a baccalaureat for the French. Both groups also had the excitement of putting the garments they created on show at Spitalfields Alternative Fashion Week last month.
The ShoreditchFlora Tristan twinning is one of eight new partnerships between London further education colleges and vocational lycees in Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region. The scheme was established and is funded under the Anglo-French Education Agreement signed last year in Le Touquet by Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and Luc Ferry, his French counterpart.
"We're hoping for long-term partnerships," says Dawn Long, project manager for the Anglo-French agreement at the British Council. "The idea is for six or seven students on each side to undertake work placements in the other country. Each year we hope the partnerships and momentum will grow."
All eight partnerships are at much the same stage, with exchanges organised between colleges and schools from January to March in catering, hairdressing, cabinet-making, business studies and childcare, as well as fashion. The pilot scheme, initially set up for two years, aims to widen access to international experience for students who do not usually have the opportunity to study abroad, allowing them to learn skills as taught in another country and giving them a taste of a foreign culture. It also gave the London students an incentive to study French before they left for Montereau.
Despite some homesickness, they judged the exchange to be valuable.
Explaining why she applied, Laura says it was "a good way to learn new cultures and skills, like drawing techniques". She also thinks it is "great to have connections in a different country and good for my CV".
For Liza Prial, studying in one of the world's leading fashion capitals helped her "learn how their culture influences their fashion trends", while the techniques she picked up were an introduction to "a new style of working". She learned the French way to lace corsets and a different way of boning and says a trip to a wholesaler "gave me an insight into the next trends and shapes". But she regrets not getting the chance to use the different technology in the French school.
Students and teachers from both countries found they had to adapt to unfamiliar systems and customs when abroad. At Shoreditch the timetable is devoted to professional training, but the lycee is part of the French school system and two-thirds of the curriculum consists of general subjects leading to the school-leaving "bac" exam. "We're more design-oriented, but in France it's more manufacturing-oriented, so we can share skills each of us have," says Paulene Carr, senior lecturer in fashion at Shoreditch, who accompanied the London students to Montereau.
French students Laetitia Mbo, Olivia Mallet, Emiline Tabuteau and Charlotte Aube, all aged 17 to 18, appreciated the greater freedom at Shoreditch, where "they left us to do things" and there were "no bells between classes". They agreed that fashion in England is more daring and "creative".
The British envied the facilities at the 12-year-old lycee. "The biggest difference was they have better resources than we do - machinery and space.
They have a proper setting for working in industry, whereas we have a classroom setting. That's why it's a brilliant exchange," says Ms Carr.