Zut alors! Is the exchange trip over?

Less than half of schools now offer overseas visits to pupils

Irena Barker

Many people who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will have fond memories of foreign exchange trips. Sharing a bedroom for a week with a teenager named Cyrille in the depths of La France profonde was a character-forming experience for thousands of teenagers. But a new survey for the British Council reveals that such visits have fallen out of favour: just 39 per cent of schools now run them.

Thirty-seven per cent of schools that have stopped offering homestays cite parental worries about safety as a factor, and 36 per cent say they are concerned about taking children out of school during term-time. Lack of interest from parents and pupils has also played a major role in the demise of exchanges.

The survey reveals stark differences between types of school: less than a third of local authority-maintained schools run host-family exchanges (30 per cent), compared with more than three-quarters of independent schools (77 per cent).

The results of the survey, conducted by YouGov, prompted the British Council to urge schools to consider reintroducing exchange programmes. Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the organisation, said: "For many of us, that first school exchange trip was a real `light-bulb moment' that got us excited about learning a language and understanding another culture.

"It's a shame that these exchanges have fallen victim to things like safety concerns, which can actually be easily remedied with the right steps."

She added: "As we seek to tackle a national language crisis and a lack of international skills among young people entering the world of work, reviving school exchanges is vital - and we'll do everything we can to help schools make this possible."

Ms Gough said anecdotal figures suggested that the proportion of schools offering exchanges had dropped from around 65 per cent in the 1990s. "Asking around our quite diverse office, everyone went on an exchange, but when you ask them if their kids go on them, they say no," she said.

One issue, alongside the number of hoops that schools had to jump through, was a lack of enthusiasm from children. "Sometimes it's the young people themselves - it can be a big step," Ms Gough said.

Ian Bauckham, past president of the Association of School and College Leaders and headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent, said: "My first experiences of taking part in overseas residential visits as a language student were life-changing and inspirational.

"Nothing, even extensive internet exposure in our networked age, can replace the experience of being immersed for a short period in a real foreign-language environment. It is the opportunity to make rapid progress in language proficiency and to learn to see life through the eyes of another culture."

As part of its campaign to encourage exchanges, the British Council has produced a set of free resources to help schools organise trips and manage issues including child protection and risk assessments. The resources are available to download at www.schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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