Don't be daunted by the magnitude of school trips. Visitors and locals all benefit greatly, writes Su Clark
Overcoming cultural differences on school trips to developing countries can be as difficult as surmounting the Great Wall of China.
Such visits often involve taking senior pupils to schools where they are overwhelmed by the size of classes and lack of resources, then showing them the tourist sites and doing a bit of shopping. A worthwhile experience, but limited.
The alternative, of organising exchanges where pupils stay with families, is even more difficult because of rigorous risk-assessment procedures and insurance cover. But it is possible.
St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh recently took 11 of its S3-4 pupils to Hong Kong and Kunming, the capital of the inland Yunnan Province, on a two-week trip that included overnight stays with families.
Annie Cornwell, who sits GCSE Mandarin this year, is still overwhelmed by the welcome she received. "The father in the family I was staying with said he would treat me as his own daughter. They made me so welcome and the meals were amazing," she says.
All 11 pupils report similar experiences of receiving warm welcomes and gratitude. Accepting the hospitality was possible because of the strong links St George's has built with China over the past 13 years. The school introduced Chinese lessons for native speakers as long ago as 1995 and, since 2005, it has been included in the curriculum at primary and secondary level.
Annie and her fellow students have been taught by Melany-Lu Lin, head of the school's Chinese department, and they will become the first cohort of non-Chinese pupils to sit Mandarin. Ms Lin, a principal assessor, is advising the Scottish Qualifications Authority on the development of Intermediate 1 and 2, which is planned to come on stream in 2009, and Higher and Advanced Higher, due in 2010.
Along with the language lessons, the school has forged links with partner schools in three areas of China: Tsung Tsin Christian Academy in urban Hong Kong; Yunnan University secondary school in the more rural Kunming; and Bashu School in Chongqing in the Sichuan Province.
In April last year, St George's deputy head Helen Mackie was invited out to Yunnan University secondary school to celebrate its 80th birthday. She took the opportunity to organise the visit for her pupils. "We hosted students and staff from the schools in August 2006 and we plan to build on the programme," says Mrs Mackie, who is head of the school's ambitious international education programme. "But we also wanted to consolidate our partnership by taking a group of students to China to connect with the young people and develop their knowledge and awareness of the language and culture."
Talking to the girls, it is clear that the overnight stays were a highlight of the trip. "Staying with families rather than in hotels gave us a real insight into how they are in their homes," says Sarah Morson, S3. "I felt as if I was seeing the real China, not the one put on for the tourists."
"It was really interesting to see the differences in culture," adds Annie.
"Where I stayed in Kunming, it was expected that you washed your feet before you went to bed. I had to wear different slippers inside," adds Caitlin Goodlae in S3. "It wasn't acceptable to wear bare feet or outdoor shoes in the apartment."
The girls spent a lot of time visiting the schools in Kunming and Hong Kong. Both are highly successful and the competition to get in is fierce, especially as acceptance at one of them opens up the possibility of a university education.
Last year, four students gained places at one of the top language colleges in the country, even though Yunnan Province as a whole is only allocated five places. They were helped by a former St George's pupil, Felicity Mills, who taught at the Yunnan University secondary school for a few months.
Sarah says: "One of the pupils asked me if I had managed to come to China because I was one of the best students at my school. She was surprised to hear it was open to all pupils. In China, only the very top students get to go on trips like this."
Mrs Mackie agrees. "But with the school roll at Yunnan University secondary school surpassing 8,500, and each class holding 60, all of whom are top students, how do you choose who gets to come to Scotland?"
The Scottish pupils' time at the school was spent watching presentations rather than in classes with Chinese pupils, probably because of the class sizes, suggests Ms Mackie. To an extent, there was also the language barrier.
Alice says: "At the school in Hong Kong they use English in all classes but two. I couldn't believe it. They were doing the same maths as us, but in a foreign language. I find it hard enough in English. But at Yunnan, most classes were delivered in Chinese and it was way beyond my GCSE level."
Sarah says she sat in on a physics class: "The only thing I could understand were the diagrams."
But the girls have not been deflated by their inability to understand. Clarissa Sutherland, from S4, says she feels really motivated after being in a Chinese-speaking environment. "I don't think it has improved my Chinese that much, but it was great being able to read characters. I really felt there was a point to it after all."
Liz Gabbitas, S3, found speaking and listening really hard. "I had to ask people to slow down, but they were really willing to help us as much as possible."
The group did manage to fit in a cultural visit to Dali, where they saw the stone forest and went to the Minorities Village, but it was the visits to the schools and the families' homes that gave them insight beyond that of an ordinary tourist.
"It has given them connectivity," says Mrs Mackie, "and an experience that will benefit them when they are adults and they are doing business with China."