Alison Thomas

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Broadening your horizons

"Bonjour. Ici Oliver sur Radio Parole de Vie. D'après Météo France, cet après-midi le soleil brillera largement sur tout le département."

It's a bright July morning in Saint-Malo, Brittany, and the little radio station is broadcasting a weather bulletin, just as it does several times a day every day of the year. But this one is special. The presenter is an English teenager, one of 21 sixth formers on a visit from Esher College in Surrey. While he proceeds to detail temperatures, wind speeds and the time of the sunset his classmates are busy in various venues chosen to suit their interests and temperament. Some are in shops, others in cafés and restaurants, some help to look after children in summer camps and clubs, others are employed in the tourist trade.

The placements have been arranged by Acorn Educational Exchanges, which runs work experience trips for sixth form linguists to France, Germany, Italy and Spain. These particular participants belong to one college and two teachers have accompanied them to support the group leader. This is not a requirement, however, and most groups are made up of individuals drawn from schools around the country. Acorn staff take care of everything, from processing applications (with personal profiles written in the target language) to visiting students in the workplace and organising optional social activities. Half-board accommodation is provided in hotels and youth hostels although home stays are also available.

"Yesterday was good but today was even better!" proclaims Emma after only two days at the Bistro de Jean. By the end of the week she is volunteering for the evening shift and is one of several students who make such an impression on their employers, that they are invited to return for the season next summer. For Saint-Malo is ideally suited for this kind of trip. Vibrant yet safe, the pedestrianised walled city is full of small independent businesses whose owners do their utmost to put their visitors at ease and train them to undertake as many different tasks as possible. Self-confidence soars and even the more reticent begin to come out of their shell. One shopkeeper takes his trainee home for lunch with his family. Another, whose shop is outside the walls, gives his protégée a lift on the first morning and on spotting her nervousness buys her a coffee before they set off for work.

Students' evaluations are overwhelmingly positive with perhaps one reservation — a week is too short. Their teachers agree but believe that the price of a longer stay would be prohibitive.

One solution is to apply for Leonardo funding for a three-week excursion comprising one week of language tuition followed by two in the workplace. Another is to follow the example of Queen Mary's Grammar School in Walsall and make your own arrangements. "We already had a well-established link with a German school in Biedenkopf, Hessen and had built up good relationships over the years," explains Language College Director, Mark Donnan. Pupils are hosted by families whose sons and daughters return to the UK. Not only does this help to keep down costs, it adds another dimension to the visit. They are totally immersed in the language and culture from dawn till dusk.

His German colleagues have developed a bank of trusted employers ranging from schools, doctors and chemists to banks, builders and a garden centre. St Mary's reciprocates in kind, but how do they set about it? "We appeal to parents who have proved to be a fantastic resource. We also turn to the careers teacher, who has a network of contacts, so we are not going in cold," he replies. Equipping students with the appropriate linguistic and cultural tools is another key to success. They learn all about the town and region so they feel familiar when they arrive and preparatory language work is integrated into the section of the AS course on work and education. "They write to companies with a CV and a letter of application. It's good training and brings it home that they are now dealing with the big wide world. They are learning language in context," he explains.

Launched in 2001 the scheme received a significant boost when the Black Country Pathfinder Network for Excellence provided funding for expansion to other schools. "That was terrific and allowed us to spread the benefits to a wider socio-economic range of pupils," he says. "The Pathfinder issued a newsletter county-wide and prepared a ten-minute DVD featuring pupils talking about what they got out of it, which we show to prospective candidates." To cope with the increase in numbers, they have brought in two more German schools and are now looking for a partner in France, although that is proving elusive. "I think there is a cultural issue here. French teachers are paid to work a specific number of hours. They are not accustomed to the concept of doing something extra," he explains. For organisation is a time-consuming process. For the last few years St Mary's has been lucky to have a mature, trilingual German assistant, who takes charge of arrangements and liaises by email with participants from other schools, answering their queries and putting their minds at rest if they are anxious.

On a practical note, he advises anyone planning a similar venture to check that they are covered by their school's insurance and above all to take note of health and safety. "We have clear guidelines in this country about what students are allowed to do in the workplace. You have to make these explicit to companies abroad, where regulations may be less rigorous," he explains.

His remarks are echoed by Sue Webb, head of modern languages at Brookfield Community School in Chesterfield. "We are so pernickety in Britain," she says. "Other countries are far less stringent but they do co-operate. We have put together a little form in the target language, which employers sign and return."

Last November marked the school's thirteenth Year 12 work experience trip to Darmstadt in Germany and it also has a well-established programme run in partnership with a school in Oyonnax, France. She is hoping to extend the scheme to Spain thanks to a new link with a school in Barcelona. She is not rushing in, however, for good relationships between participating staff are fundamental to success and these take time to build. The same applies to employers, and she goes out of her way to express her appreciation. "They are doing us a favour and I write a detailed letter outlining the benefits and send them a copy of my annual report," she says. Students too write a brief thank you note at the end of their stay followed by a more formal letter on returning to England. If the first task is to track down good placements, the second is to nurture them.

Students visiting Oyonnax are hosted by penfriends, those in Darmstadt are accommodated in a youth hostel. Sue Webb sees merits in both systems, for while German groups miss out on the personal dimension of family life they gain in other ways. Their working day varies from individual to individual, but as a rule it runs from around 8am to 1pm or 2pm, followed by two or three hours' free time, when they explore their surroundings or just relax. The youth hostel provides exclusive use of a well-equipped seminar room and they gather here for work from 4pm until 7.30pm with a short break for dinner. These sessions are rigorous. Not only do they write up their diaries in the target language, assisted by Sue Webb and her German colleagues, they also have intensive grammar lessons and even sit Year 12 exams in other subjects, which their teacher has brought from home. It may sound daunting, but they apply themselves without complaint and some express gratitude in their final evaluations.

These make very interesting reading. "I feel that the trip has opened up a window of opportunities for me. I feel much more confident, not only with my language, but with talking to people in general," writes one person. "I am able to do things on my own such as using public transport and finding my way around the town," remarks another. For increased self-reliance and self-knowledge are recurrent themes. "For me that is one of the most valuable outcomes," says Sue Webb. "It gives them the confidence and competence to undertake future visits abroad on their own and many of them do."

general interest | travel | education | languages | business

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