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They've never had it so gut

When you're on your own in a German office, you pick up the language fast.

Andrew Mourant on a bold placement scheme

Jane Porritt will never forget her first day of work experience. A nervous 15-year-old from Sheffield, with only a smattering of the language, she reported for duty to Bochum zoo in Germany and marked the occasion by falling into a duck pond.

Jane, a former pupil of City School, Sheffield, was in the first small cohort of Year 10 pupils to participate in a unique venture now celebrating its 10th anniversary. More than 200 15-year-olds have since followed her to Bochum - though few ended up at the zoo.

Yet wherever people went - fellow pupil Anna Tagg was at Steilmann, a clothing design house, drawing and cutting out patterns - most, like Jane, returned more confident and less nervous about the language barrier. "I'd recommend work experience in Germany to anyone," she said.

But it was a nerve-wracking decision. Jane took it because she wanted to improve her GCSE German - she was a borderline C-D. "It helped a lot - putting into place things I'd been learning that didn't seem real," she said.

She got her C and now works as an IT support technician. She's still in touch with her German hosts, and although not a natural linguist, writes part of her letters to them in German. For Jane, an enduring legacy of the trip is the insight it gave her into a foreign culture. "The lifestyle is so different - education is more heavily emphasised and part of their lives," she said.

While the study of German declines nationally, the work experience link between Sheffield and its German twin city Bochum has helped buck the trend. It began on a modest scale in 1993, nurtured by former science and IT teacher Phil Porter, and then involved just City and Newfield schools.

But where once eight youngsters went annually to Bochum, last year there were 28, from seven schools.

The idea is to build character, and confidence, give understanding and tolerance of different customs and communities and also to raise educational and employment expectations. This year the project received an award for having made "the most significant contribution to enrich the lives of young people in Sheffield".

It is not for everyone. Some children come from backgrounds where, says City School head of languages Ron Parsonage, "they think if they go past Chesterfield they'll fall off the edge of the world". But, he says, for those who do strike out, the benefit to confidence is enormous.

He admits not all are successful. "Some don't get on with their German partners," he said. "We had one who found her placement too difficult, in the office of a German council and struggling with the language. Some of course get homesick."

The body organising the work experience, WEBS, became a charity in 1994, managed by trustees including teachers, at least one parent; and representatives from business. It's run by a voluntary director helped by a co-ordinating teacher in each school.

WEBS has also drawn on help from the Multilingual City Initiative and Sheffield Trident, the work placement charity. In 2002, it won council funding so parents no longer had to pay, staff cover could be funded and the director could be paid a small fee. It also meant students could take part in a new work experience link with a college in Amiens, France. WEBS also hopes to offer opportunities in Spain in 2004.

Sheffield students travel to Bochum in early summer, spending two weeks in places such as primary schools, computer firms, vets' surgeries, and shops.

They stay with the families of German partner students, who, in autumn, have a reciprocal fortnight in Sheffield. Teachers, parents and students also take part in a social and cultural programme.

One measure of WEBS' success is better GCSE grades. From 1993-2001, 82 per cent of students involved got a C or above. Of 120 tracked by Sheffield University in 2002, half studied German A-level - among them a cohort of four from a school that had no previous history of pupils going on to advanced German. Meanwhile a quarter going on to a degree studied German as a joint or subsidiary subject.

Todd Green is a recent success story. Todd, 16, formerly of Wisewood School, now studying in the sixth form at King Edward VII, had never been abroad before. "I was finding German really difficult," he said. "As it was getting close to GCSE, I thought going to Bochum would give it a boost. It was a big thing. Two friends were going but we were told we wouldn't see each other. I worked in a kindergarten where I was forced to speak German - the children had no grasp of English. The place was warm and welcoming.

"It improved my German massively - I got an A*. Without it, I could have got just a B. I picked up a phenomenal amount. I did more than was required for the exam because I was interested."

Todd's ambition is to read maths at Cambridge; though he wouldn't rule out doing a degree with a German element. "One day I'd like to live in Germany; to become completely fluent," he said.

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