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A world beyond the surfboard

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon.

There were times during the past year when our school foyer felt like the departures lounge at Heathrow. True, the only things we sell below high street prices are ties and calculators, and we have not yet installed X-ray scanners to find hidden knives this is Devon, after all. We have, however, learnt a great deal about baggage-handling.

Last June, we hosted a visit from our Comenius partners, a programme funded by the European Commission to promote links between European schools. It was like an old joke: "There were some Dutch, Turks, Poles and Portuguese..." In our case, it was true 42 of them, with a pile of suitcases bigger than a butter mountain. We flew a different national flag each day, gorged on gift-wrapped boxes of Turkish delight and watched children make multi-national friends over lunch in the canteen.

Then there were the Thais. We decided that if we practised hard we would be able to pronounce the name, and so formed a link with the Watchiratamsatit school in Bangkok. We have now held two exchange visits of a dozen staff and students. What do they like about England? First, Marks Spencer; second, chocolate digestives, which we now export in the same quantities as we import Turkish delight.

The visits do give us a chance to experience other cultures at first hand and hold a mirror up to our own. We have yet to see one of our Thai visitors look miserable or hear one moan. Whatever we do for them is met with thanks and gifts. When we took them to London, even the bemused ticket collector on the Tube was showered with Thai bling just for providing helpful directions. Assemblies are halted mid-flow for a sequence of smiley group photographs that make Japanese tourists look like amateurs. Children in corridors are stopped and swept under the wing of Thai affection.

I always ask our visitors how our school differs from those in their country. A common response is their amazement at how hard our teachers work, followed by envy of the number of support staff. For example, a design and technology teacher, on exchange from Sydney, tells me that there he has no technician and no teaching assistants. Which leads us to a question that hurts. What do we get for all our extra effort?

Our visitors do not marvel at the superior academic abilities of our pupils, or their superior social skills or higher moral compass. Such independent data that exists, for example, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, suggests we have improved but are by no means the top dog of economically developed countries.

British teenagers do pretty well in binge-drinking league tables it has not gone unnoticed that different generations socialise together in the piazzas and plazas but not the British pub. Is it possible that factors such as family dysfunction and the postcode lottery of success are so deeply ingrained in British society that teachers have to work much harder just to make standards keep pace with let alone overtake other countries?

There are people I suspect mainly closet Ofsted inspectors who ask me how I measure the impact of our international work. Is it cost effective? Is it value for money? No idea, frankly. But in a rural school such as ours we need to keep aspirations high and make sure students know there is life beyond a surfboard and a pasty. I may not be able to quantify the impact of our international visitors, but I can imagine what life would be like without them. Keep that baggage carousel turning.

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