Working towards fluency

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Work experience abroad is worth the effort to organise well, says Alison Thomas

Two weeks' work experience in Darmstadt does wonders for your German - and a lot more besides, according to Year 12 students from Brookfield Community School in Chesterfield. Some mention the boost to their self-confidence, others the insight they have gained into German culture. Comments on greater independence, new friendships and learning to fit in with others add to the variety. Perhaps most telling of all: "The experience has allowed me to get to know myself better", and "I feel at ease when surrounded by people of another nationality."

For head of modern languages Sue Webb, that is what it is all about. "They are fearful at the start but after a few days they blossom," she says. "At the end of their stay they don't want to leave." In fact, many are so smitten they return at half term in Year 13. "The initial experience gives them the confidence to organise a trip of their own. That in itself is very valuable," she adds.

Staff in Brookfield's French and German partner schools liaise with employers, and a new link has just been established in Spain. Students with specific career ambitions are encouraged to request related placements.

Workplaces in previous years have ranged from a veterinary practice and a pharmacy to architects' and solicitors' offices and the props department of a theatre.

In France they live with families, in Germany they are accommodated in a youth hostel. Sue Webb sees merits in both systems. "With exchange partners they get more oral practice and see a bit of family life. In the youth hostel, we get together in the evening for grammar work and they write detailed diaries in German," she says.

Despite the success of the programme, which won a European Award for Languages in 1999, she has concerns for the future. One is that negative press and increasingly rigorous health and safety regulations will discourage younger staff from shouldering responsibility for the trips.

Another is the fate of the Darmstadt link when her German colleague retires. "Teachers abroad are not paid for the extra work involved, so it's down to the dedication of individuals. When they move on, there is no guarantee of a replacement," she explains.

The Piggott School, a language college in Wokingham, experienced this problem first hand when a partnership with a lycee near Paris collapsed after 11 years. It is now starting afresh with a lycee in Foug res, arranged through the LC-SE Partnership Project, an initiative linking language colleges with Sections Europeennes. "Good relationships are the key and these take time to build," says Piggott School director Jan Sibun.

She also stresses the importance of mutual understanding and flexibility, citing the ambivalence of Foug res parents towards work experience to illustrate her point. "It was a new concept to them and they were afraid their children would be exploited," she says. "In the first year, we compromised by restricting it to three days. Now they are as enthusiastic as we are and this year students spent five days at work, with a little time out to visit each other's schools and see for themselves how the two education systems differ."

The communities too are very different and Jan Sibun wondered initially what urban teenagers would make of tranquil, rural Foug res. In the event, they loved it and cannot wait to return. This year's cohort did especially well and the French assistant was astonished at the impact on their fluency. "Perhaps it was the dynamics of the group or perhaps we prepared them particularly thoroughly as they were very apprehensive beforehand," she says.

Preparation is important, both linguistically and to equip students with coping strategies and social skills that will help them adjust to their new surroundings. They also draw up lists of questions on their chosen subject for the AS-level oral presentation. The students are rewarded with valuable information and expressions, and the questions serve as an ice-breaker, especially helpful if one or both of the exchange partners is shy.

As with Brookfield, the host school arranges placements, but in this case they are predominantly in primary schools. Once again, preparation makes a difference and students take books, songs and other resources and plan what they might do in class. Jan Sibun believes that schools provide a positive experience because there is so much interaction and students feel valued.

"The children love them and the teachers find their contribution enrichissant," she says.

One problem facing any school contemplating a similar venture will be a discrepancy in numbers, as applicants abroad always outnumber those at home. One solution is to combine forces with a neighbouring school. Another is to use the services of Acorn Educational Exchanges, which organises one-week trips to France, Germany and Spain. On the downside the cost is significantly higher. On the upside staff are spared considerable work and responsibility.

Hanya Nait-Ladjemil, who teaches French at Park House School in Newbury, sent students to Caen and joined the party herself as a group leader. She was impressed by the hospitality of some employers, such as the baker whose parting gift to his protege was an enormous basket of chocolates and delicacies. Not all placements were as satisfying and one girl was moved to a local radio station from her post in an exceptionally quiet museum.

Usually, however, if students were not stimulated they had only themselves to blame, she says: "All one boy could say when we met up in the evening was, 'At last, I can speak English'."

In contrast, a girl who worked at the Conseil Regional, based in the Abbaye aux Dames, went out of her way to show an interest in her magnificent surroundings, although she knew nothing about ecclesiastical history. "She thought conversation would be difficult but she spent the week chatting and joking, and her hosts arranged a special tour of the abbey just for her.

They also helped her enormously with her oral presentation and showered her with gifts. She was in tears when she left," says her teacher.

* Acorn Educational Exchanges: www.halsbury.comnewacornaee.htm Tel: 0115 9404303

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