Victoria Neumark on a thriving foreign work and cultural exchange scheme One of our aims," says Ben Taubman, senior teacher at Christ's College School in north London, "was to instil the concept that Europe was possible, that languages were important."
Six years ago, 10 boys from Christ's College, a boys' 11-18 comprehensive, did an exchange with a lycee in Paris for two weeks of "no-frills" work experience under the auspices of the local Barnet Education Business partnership. Last year Mr Taubman co-ordinated the exchanges of 200 children from four countries, including 70 from five Barnet schools. This meant two weeks tackling the four "challenges" of the European Union's International Award: work experience, a comparison of cultural forms, a comparison of educational institutions and a free choice. Personal evaluations of the day-to-day business of living and working abroad are an essential part of the experience.
For Year 9 pupils Giles Cuddy and Robert Andrew, the award structured their fortnight away, turning it from what Mr Taubman calls a "so what?" experience into one which has educational meaning - a cultural challenge. Even if, like Giles, pupils have been less than keen on aspects of their experience, they can use that, too. Giles hated French food - the meat "all dripping with blood" and the "all mixed-up" stews which dropped on to his plate from the friendly family with whom he conversed "mainly in sign language". So he wrote a project contrasting English food (pizzas and chips, mainly) with French cuisine. Robert, shocked to find himself living in a house with no TV, computer or washing machine, was forced into speaking to his French exchange, although he was surprised to find himself waking up one day worrying about how to say "good morning".
There is endless scope, says Mr Taubman, for pupils to explore their interests and gain accreditation. Some pupils have produced 30-page folders written entirely in French; others have created a new Monopoly board of Paris.
Students do not need to be studying languages at A-level to participate in the scheme. Farhad Cooper took A-level mathematics, physics and biology. Before his two weeks abroad, he spent a term doing lunch-hour French conversation twice a week and worked privately on a business French audio course from the school library. Then he spent two weeks in Paris working in an out-patients clinic, researching differences in pre-university study in England and France, writing up the small Salvador Dali museum in Montmartre and analysing the symbolic meaning of the late President Mitterrand's grands projets.
Vivek Mahajan, also 18, was equally enthusiastic. Under the award he went to the Ruhr in Germany. The coursework he did there - on racism - has counted towards his A-level French, helping him get a good grade and a place at Durham University.
The International Award is validated by the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Sixty per cent of the secondary schools in England and Wales are registered on this parent scheme, which provides, says Brenda Thornton, advisory teacher in Barnet, "validation for some Cinderella areas of the curriculum, for example religious education".
As with other subjects covered by the youth award, students doing foreign work experience under the International Award can enter at different levels.
A first "level up" caters for students with special needs, and a "platinum" universities' level is aimed at high-flyers. There are four countries taking part: Sweden, Germany, France and England. The funding is being provided, until 1988, by the EU's Comenius education programme, alongside contributions from each school fund. Except in cases of great hardship, students pay for their own travel.
The work exchange programmes developed in Barnet are based on solid hard work. Work starts with setting goals and targets, identifying key skills and planning dates within four weeks of deciding to take the award. The four months before the actual exchange, from September to January, are spent refining projects and establishing contacts with exchange partners, as well as honing language skills. The months following the exchange are used to polish the written work.
Omar Iqbal in Year 12 is studying history at A-level and went to Sweden. His trip to the Swedish parliament crystallised his thoughts on constitutional monarchy and the French Revolution for his cultural challenge. A week's work experience was spent with Stockholm's gas company, following and assisting engineers and maintenance workers - a useful preparation for someone doing chemistry and physics A-levels with a view to a career in energy. Sam Grove, also in Year 12, simply enjoyed his work in the top form of a Swedish primary school, while getting thoroughly hooked on his free choice project: the intense rivalry splitting Stockholm over the finals of the Swedish ice-hockey tournament.
Contact ASDAN, 27 Redland Hill, Bristol BS6 6UX. Tel: 01179 239843