International study links save us from gloom and depression;Commentary;Opinion;FE Focus

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
I received an unusual amount of support after my last piece, probably because if reflected a mood of depression common to TES readers. This really won't do. There is much to celebrate, not least that we are all still here, and that the students are as ebullient as ever. So this time it's a Pollyanna piece, however little support it earns.

Five years ago - before incorporation - this college had very little to do with abroad. We encouraged language students to visit it, or relevant bits of it, and that was about all. Since then links with abroad have increased out of all recognition. Others will find this very old hat, as they no doubt were flying and ferrying all over the place all century, but if so they may not have the fresh perceptions we have of the value of such links for students.

We have had a Finnish student here this term on work experience; now we have a whole group on the first leg of an Art and Design exchange. Previously we had a business exchange with Finland, connected with the timber industry. Last week a group of Danes dropped by to look round - "Your Vikings arrived late!" said one discommoded colleague to another - and there have been business trips to Hungary and Belgium this year. We have links with a college in Luxembourg and another in Holland, and through them with their networks in France, Germany and Italy.

In January and February this year we sent students to India and Washington, USA. Last week the two groups set up an exhibition and gave a presentation to parents, governors and sponsors, which was what started me thinking about our newly-formed links abroad.

For advanced level students, visits abroad enhance their studies, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. So the business students visit factories and other companies in the countries they visit, and art and design students work on joint projects with students from Luxembourg or Finland. International conferences allow participants to exchange information about and to learn directly that we are all the same and at the same time culturally different.

GNVQ students are usually able to match their studies to their visits abroad and their contacts with people from other countries. Miss Ghana UK 1997 visited Ghana to receive her award and meet the King, but at the same time worked on comparing health services - a module in her health and social care course. It's a useful module, for it was the same one being studied by the students who went to India. They took a teacher with them, and were able to have lessons after each day's activities.

The students who went to Washington were A-level students and took part in the presidential classroom programme for future world leaders. Their feedback and presentations were quite different from those who went to India, but just as valid. Outside visitors will have received, I think, a good picture of the range of experiences offered to different students through the courses they choose. Coming back after two weeks, the India students agreed, was like having spent two months in a different world. They had mixed with the very poor and the immensely privileged, yet what they felt reflected the former rather than the latter.

They found the world they had temporarily left unchanged, but they themselves no longer wanted to spend their leisure time shopping. They came back changed to a world which had not kept pace with them and with an awareness heightened by absence of the privileges and disadvantages of living in the so-called development world.

The Washington Summit was different again. National delegations sent members to workshops on global issues; the workshops were to publish communiques, but only if these received the approval of each national delegation. This, our students reported, demanded skills of negotiation and compromise, an openness to other points of view, and an ability to sacrifice a personal view to that of the group one belonged to if that was for the greater good of the project. Although it was the UK contingent which ensured that the Human Rights communique was not published (it had become too bland, they decided), it says much for what they had learned of conflict resolution that a communique from a group including America and Saudi Arabia was even drawn up. But of course they had other experiences which they will carry with them: the Indians saw the Taj Mahal, and the Americans the White House, the Americans visited the Holocaust Museum and spoke to a survivor. Last year, business studies students visited Auschwitz and their teachers did not feel it inappropriate for them to remember that for longer than they remembered the factories they had gone to see.

When I look at the photographs and hear the students evaluate their trips, when I reflect on the skills they have developed and the memories they have gained, and when I see how they gain in maturity, I am lifted above the daily gloom. I bet they are convinced of the value of lifelong learning, too.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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