Faced with dwindling numbers of A-level students prepared to commit themselves to a foreign exchange, Kant Mann, head of modern languages at Beechen Cliff school in Bath, came up with an attractive solution - two weeks of work experience and language tuition courtesy of a private language school in Rosas on Spain's Costa Brava. The experiment was such a success that he now organises similar trips to Montpelier in France.
"The students come back brimming with confidence," he says. "It also teaches them valuable life skills. They have to get there themselves and, although the school gives them support, they learn to stand on their own two feet and adapt to another way of life."
Freddie Willetts of Year 13, who visited Rosas last July, agrees. "It was a great experience and I was amazed at how much I learned," he says. "The teacher was excellent and helped us a lot with the work and leisure module we do for our exam."
Students in Spain live in a flat near the school. They spend their mornings in class, and the afternoons exploring. In the evenings they work in hotels and restaurants. "We spoke Spanish most of the time, as Rosas is quite small and not many people speak English," Freddie says. "The locals were very friendly and we used to go out with other hotel staff after work."
The school in Montpelier is a larger organisation and lodges students with carefully vetted families. Arrangements here are slightly different, and consist of a week's tuition followed by a week at work. This year, however, participants have the option of spending the full fortnight in class, as some of last year's placements were a little disappointing. "We found ourselves doing menial tasks, which didn't give us much chance to speak," explains James Oldham, who worked at Galeries Lafayette. "It was all right, but I learned more from the lessons at school and from the lady I stayed with, who spoke no English at all. My French improved enormously and I was able to research my written coursework on the Tour de France and prepare my oral topic on 'youth'. Montpelier was brilliant and I definitely intend to go back."
Finding appropriate placements is easier if you already have links with a community abroad. Every June for the past six years a teacher from Welshpool hgh school in Powys has set off for Hennebont in Brittany, armed with details of pupils' current subjects, university choices and possible future career. In October, the Year 13 students themselves go for a week, accompanied by a coach-load of younger pupils who are going on exchange visits. The timing is ideal as it gives these older students the opportunity to collect data and conduct interviews for coursework due in at Christmas.
Phil Lewis, a former language teacher at the school, explains how it started. "I had contacts in Hennebont going back many years and had often helped their students to find placements over here. People were only too happy to return the favour. I also went round knocking on doors. I was given a warm reception and very few businesses turned me down."
Each year the research becomes easier as the school's list of contacts grows. And, because the ground is so carefully prepared, placements are usually hugely successful. Last year one girl, who aspires to a career in the media, spent her time reading live news bulletins and weather reports on local radio. Another with similar interests worked at an audio-visual centre and produced a promotional video for the scheme. "It's very professional and we now have a great asset to promote future trips," says trip co-ordinator Louise Calton.
While acknowledging the benefits of his long-standing relationships, Phil Lewis believes there is scope for others to take a similar approach, especially in small communities, where it is easier to build up a network of contacts. "If you are friendly, adaptable and keep an open mind, companies are happy to help," he says.
CIVIL Liability Insurance: In the case of Beechen Cliff school this is arranged in situ by the private schools. Welshpool high school consulted the local careers office and adapted the legal document they use for French pupils.
Travel: Beechen Cliff students have travelled both by train and air. Their peers at Welshpool High School travel by coach.
Cost: Beechen Cliff: pound;200-pound;350 excluding travel. The school hopes to subsidise this year's trip with money earned from supervising PGCE students. Welshpool: pound;300 including staff costs and travel. Partial funding is provided by the Mid-Wales Training and Enterprise Council and pupils pay about half.