The British Council has launched a campaign calling on schools to bring back overseas exchange trips in order to encourage more children to study languages and gain international experience.
The campaign, which is being launched in International Education Week, is aiming to revive the once-common exchanges in order to encourage more young people study foreign languages and address a lack of international skills identified by UK businesses.
Well under half of British secondary schools (39%) currently run traditional exchange trips involving a stay with a host family, according to research carried out for the British Council by YouGov. Less than a third of Local Authority-maintained schools run these exchanges (30%), compared with more than three quarters of independent schools (77%).
Only 27% of secondary schools run other kinds of international exchange trips (where students stay in hotels, for example). Even virtual exchanges are rare – with only 16% of secondary schools holding videoconferences with partner schools.
Among schools which previously ran exchange trips, safety concerns and issues with taking students out of school during term-time were the main reasons for no longer doing so.
However, many people who have gone on to learn a language to a high standard claim that exchange visits during their childhood inspired them. In a separate survey carried out by the British Council among university language students, almost two thirds (62%) said an international exchange influenced their decision to do a language degree.
Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, 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. 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.”
As part of the campaign, the British Council has produced a set of free resources for schools to help them organise exchange trips and deal with issues including child protection and risk assessments.
The campaign has gained the support of a range of educators and language enthusiasts.
Actor and broadcaster Larry Lamb said: “My first visit overseas was in 1965. I'd just passed my driving test and a friend needed a co-driver as our plan was to make it all the way to the Algarve. We stopped outside the cathedral in Chartres, and went into a restaurant. The lunch menu caused me real consternation - a rasher of what I took to be raw bacon and this thing I now know to be a slice of melon was the starter. I had no idea what to do with it ... but I’ve come such a long way in fifty years.
“School exchanges are a great way to get our kids really excited about speaking other languages and experiencing other cultures like this, so it’s a real shame that they aren’t as common as they once were. At a time when there’s a real lack of international skills in the UK, it’s time to bring them back.”
Ian Bauckham, Immediate Past President of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Head Teacher at 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. I would urge schools to support the British Council’s initiative so that as many young people as possible can benefit from what can be a life changing experience.”
Baroness Jean Coussins, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, said: “I wholeheartedly support the British Council’s campaign. I have fond memories of the time I spent with a French family in Grenoble from age 13, which produced lifelong friendships. Travelling, seeing the world and working abroad – these are all such important ways of developing ourselves, increasing our self confidence and ability to engage with the wider world.
“APPG research indicates that lower participation rates in school exchanges are contributing to the continued low number of GCSE and A Level entries in languages, with an inevitable effect on student numbers at university and a skewed reliance on English-speaking markets for our imports and exports. We need our schools to overcome any issues they have and give their pupils the chance to go abroad and change their perspectives on the world.”