No exchange for spirit of adventure

20th August 2004 at 01:00
I was staying in the big sister's room. She was with the aunt and grandmother who lived in the apartment across the hall, although I had no idea who they were at the time.

I was so baffled by every incident, by my new school surroundings, by each trip to the shops, every snack or proper meal. On the second night my homesickness was so severe that I had to pretend I was allergic to the tortilla because my eyes were full of tears. And yet by the last night, I was helping Se$ora Molina with her lottery numbers and ordering whelks at the seafront cafeteria.

Sadly, the age of the school language exchange appears to be over, yet there is no cheaper, safer way for students to travel abroad and certainly no better way to learn a language. Schools are struggling to find educational, affordable alternatives. Trips nowadays take the form of organised activity holidays with teachers acting as babysitters, while trained professionals help the children abseil down cliffs or swim to shore from their capsized raft. School and teacher control is being transferred to summer camp-style co-ordinators while trips abroad are involving less and less interaction with anyone "foreign".

Recently, I watched the final rehearsals of a performance about children's rights taking place in the south of France. Children were here from Senegal, Aix-en-Provence and a north London primary to act out a trilingual production after many months of improvisation and rehearsals. It was cultural and linguistic exchange at its best with English children staying with French families and spending each day rehearsing at a large theatre.

The Senegalese children were delayed by visa problems but the bigger problem was with the British contingent, which despite the trip being what headteachers would call a "wonderful opportunity" and "the chance of a lifetime", had shrunk from 22 to just 11 pupils. Three children dropped out in the last few days, withdrawn because their parents became fearful of letting them stay with host families. Not only is the foreign exchange doomed, but so, it seems, are homestays. When I was a languages teacher and used to lead trips to Spain for students in Years 7 and 8, parents would want assurances that the families did not contain a paedophile.

There was an underlying panic about possible abuse and lack of trust in the adults concerned, but no real assurances could ever be given. We just had an address abroad, a list of their pets and how many of the family smoked.

In an age when the explosion of information has meant every last distressing story is flashed up on the television or on the internet, it is no surprise that parents are withdrawing their children from school trips.

An even greater threat to the school trip could be computer technology. It has caused most British pupils to be too self-absorbed and so overwhelmed by the forces of pop culture that they don't want to leave behind their DVD collections. It has dulled pupils' curiosity to such a degree that on a week's trip to Andalusia a few years ago, half the coach refused to get off at Barcelona's magnificent Sagrada Fam!lia because they were linked up to their handheld computer games. One boy said he already had a postcard of it, and anyway he only had two more monsters to destroy at Star Level Seven. Students need not go to Rome because a three-dimensional and interactive model of the Colosseum is available on the internet. A "virtual Eiffel Tower" may soon dispense with anyone of school age from having to leave their bedroom, and as for the language, you can just speak into an automated translator.

The French tend not to travel overseas as much as the English, but they have always been very keen on student exchanges. The greater importance of town-twinning in France means that students often end up in the same village or staying with the same family as their parents did 40 years before. French children still want to go on foreign exchanges, but there's isn't anyone left in Britain to receive them. Perhaps it is time for the exchange model to take on a much greater significance in a child's education. It needs to adopt a different form: students should be able to travel in pairs; they can stay for a shorter time; less emphasis could be placed on the linguistic challenge and more on social and cultural awareness. The foreign exchange must become a central part of the curriculum or it may spell the end for modern language teaching altogether.

Jon Bryant is a journalist and former teacher. He lives in the south of France

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