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Exchanges are fantastic

When I look back at my teaching career, something I am genuinely proud of is the long-running exchange Ripon Grammar School had with the Institution Saint Louis, in Pont l'Abbé d'Arnoult. I left the classroom in 2012, and the exchange is still running every other year, 36 years after I set it up in 1988. In the 24 years I ran the exchange, roughly 600 students must have taken part, nearly all either in Y10 or Y12 - that's the way we ran it, to avoid disrupting the exams in Y11 and Y13. We would time the exchange to take up some lesson time, but strongly overlap with half terms or Easter holidays. I never saw that as a sacrifice since I enjoyed the exchange and it felt much like a holiday.

Exchanges are fantastic. I can think of no better way of giving students the opportunity to expand their cultural and linguistic horizons. It's quite a personal challenge too. But to make exchanges happen requires enthusiasm, endurance and organisational skill. And in these post-Brexit days, with vetting also to the forefront, I can imagine that setting up and running an exchange is quite a challenge. You need buy-in from the schools' leaderships, parents and students - not to mention colleagues to help it run. It's also crucial to match schools carefully. Although there might seem merit in having students experience very different social milieux, in practice having schools with similar contexts is the safer bet.

In the very early days, the exchange was more of a full immersion experience, since there was no internet. We even had one Y12 girl who couldn't cope and had to return home, but year on year, the large majority of students either coped well or thrived. Long-term friendships were established and students got a real boost of motivation which they brought back to the classroom. Interestingly, we noticed that the main benefit was in listening skill more than speaking, though oral proficiency improved, no doubt. Exchange students often went on to study A-level, though the ones who chose to go were already motivated to develop their French. I do think that the exchange was one factor which led us to have such high numbers studying A-level French.

Not only were friendships made between students, but my wife and I began a 35 year long friendship with a colleague and her husband - a friendship we celebrated with a recent holiday in Martinique! We also ended up buying our house in Puyravault, about an hour away from our partner school. Other colleagues also began friendships which lasted a few years at least.

Our exchanges lasted 10 days to two weeks. They would involve a couple of group outings to places of interest, with the French students, some lessons spent in school, but mostly our pupils were just living alongside their partner in a family environment. The more immersion, the better. Occasionally group sports were organised, and the French were good at formal receptions, sometimes with the local mayor.

Preparation involved a letter to parents, matching up students using detailed information sheets, planning the travel (initially by coach, later by coach and plane from Stansted) and a pre-exchange parent meeting. Boys tended to like to be with other boys, girls with girls, but we always asked if students were happy to accept someone of the opposite sex. Maybe these days one would ask about preferred identity? I don't know. Getting the numbers right could be a source of stress, when you had to let people down. Last minute changes were also a headache. The biggest stress for me was cold-calling parents to ask if they could take a person. I hated that so much. On one occasion, the French group arrived with an extra person we had not expected. That was a tricky one!

But overall, if you have the will and enthusiasm, I would strongly recommend setting up an exchange. It's fulfilling in so many ways and, in financial terms, cheaper than a study trip or hotel-based holiday. It was our Y8s who got that experience every year. That's another story.


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