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A well-earned vocation

Patrick Russell took his pupils on a school exchange with a difference.

A colleague and I have just returned from Toronto with a mixed party of 20 sixth-form students after a two-week exchange visit with a difference.

As well as sitting in on lessons and generally absorbing the "culture" of a different education system for the first week, the students spent their second week on a work placement tailored to their own career aspirations.

One student who is considering reading law spent her time with a woman judge, both in chambers and in court. Three others - one of whom wants to work in graphic design, and two who want to be journalists - had placements at The Globe and Mail, Canada's oldest national newspaper, and yet another (an aspiring fashion designer) spent time with a textiles company, following the process from design to manufacture to retail.

However, it wasn't all plain sailing. On the first morning of her placement in a research laboratory, one student decided that watching a foetus being removed from a dead sheep did not endear her towards a planned career in biochemical research. Another didn't realise that shadowing a TV news crew around Toronto meant the day could finish as lat as 11pm. But it wasn't all work: we also visited Niagara Falls and appeared, as part of a studio audience, on Canadian television.

The Canadian students will arrive here for a similar programme in late June. This may involve a day trip to Paris on Eurostar as well as the all-important work experience in Guildford or London.

Our students have not stopped talking about their Canadian experience. But what I think is really significant is the number who have had their career paths confirmed as a result of their time in Toronto, or indeed have decided that biochemistry, hotel management or veterinary practice (to name a few) are not for them. The added dimension has been that they have furthered their own understanding of education and the world of work by viewing another culture at close quarters.

This exchange, which is to become an annual event, provides a wonderful opportunity to enrich the school's sixth-form curriculum - very much in line with current government thinking about broadening the post-16 experience for students - and widens our already considerable links with other institutions.

Patrick Russell is head of communication studies at George Abbot school,Guildford, Surrey

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