School exchanges, once seen as a normal and essential part of almost every school’s offerings to language learners, have become increasingly rare over the last few decades. Red tape, pressures on teachers’ time, the perceived need to focus on exams and league tables, safeguarding issues, risk-aversion (not only among teenagers), fears of litigation if “something goes wrong” – all are contributory factors to their decline. In the end, even the most enthusiastic proponents of exchanges might well sigh, “It’s just not worth the hassle.”
And yet a number of highly successful UK schools see their exchange programmes as one of the most important parts of the learning experience offered. Some even expect all pupils and most members of staff, not just the linguists, to take part in visits and exchanges at several stages in their school career. Exchanges are recognised as valuable in that they build far more than language skills: they are an integral part of the school’s task of developing resilient, confident and independent young adults. And, of course, high-profile international links still bring kudos to the school.
Why are exchange visits so valuable – and not just for language skills?
The skills acquired and experience-broadening lessons learned through exchanges are often very simple, but utterly essential in the development of well-adjusted adults.
1. Mental resilience
Suddenly removed from the familiar environment of home and school, pupils learn to deal with homesickness, to cope with new people and situations - be that different food, navigating unfamiliar towns or public transport systems. They have to work out what’s going on around them – all as part of a controlled adventure, and for a limited time.
2. Respect for others and interpersonal skills
Exchange pupils learn how to support and be supported, helping their German exchange partner to navigate life in the UK, just as they do for them on the return visit. Hosting, welcoming, empathising, making friends – even being with teachers and adults outside school – is often a new experience.
3. Social skills
Working with others cross-culturally is a vital skill. Pupils also learn to relate satisfactorily to people from another culture, to a family and social group which is not their own, of different ages and backgrounds. They find this demanding, but fun!
4. Intercultural understanding
Exchanges teach critical respect for British values, and respect for others: it is a truism that knowledge of another language brings insights into different ways of thinking. Pupils learn that the British way of doing things isn’t always better or worse – just different. Understanding becomes more nuanced as pupils’ (often unexamined) prejudices or unwitting over-generalisations come face-to-face with experience.
5. Breadth of knowledge
There’s much more to this than simply trying new foods. Pupils have usually seen images and films of, say, German history and art, and been exposed to German history and culture in the classroom. But to discover these things for real, and in their natural context, is an essential experience.
6. Linguistic skills
The inescapable improvement in language skills has already been mentioned; pupils also become more adept at thinking on their feet, using the language at their disposal more flexibly and effectively. A visit to Germany is as essential to language learning as lab practicals are to science, and field-work to Geography.
7. Academic excellence
That pupils’ language skills will improve thanks to participation in exchanges goes without saying. But pupils also gain an insight into the possibilities afforded by knowledge of a foreign language and its culture (in the broadest sense of that word). They return enriched by the different perspectives they have gained, and often stand out in university and job applications.
Pupils often return from exchanges highly motivated to continue with their language learning.
The experience of schools which have a well-developed exchange programme is that, by the end of their school career, pupils who have participated in them have usually developed certain essential and desirable characteristics to a demonstrably higher level than those who have not. These have been summarised by the Anglo-European School, Ingatestone*, as follows:
3. The ability to look critically beyond the obvious
4. The ability to communicate articulately
6. Kindness; an understanding of differences
8. They are principled
9. Mental health: they have an innate confidence and resilience
10. Better academic results than expected.
In short, school exchanges bring advantages which no other form of learning can, and which more than justify the time and effort involved.
Paul Stocker, Head of Youthbridge, British-German Association. May 2021
This, the first of two Youthbridge guides on exchanges, documents the advantages of such visits as perceived by UK schools which run them. The second (German Exchanges – How?) gives current information on how to organise exchanges. We welcome feedback and ideas on both guides – please e-mail us at: [email protected]