Towards the end of this month a group of young people from Wetherby High School will be travelling to our twin town, Privas, to spend a week with French families and get to know the spectacular Ardèche region of France.
In mid-April, a group from Privas will make the return journey and spend a week in Wetherby, experiencing the delights of Yorkshire.
As usual, there are more French young people wanting to come here than we have going to France.
For some reason, our children and young people are much more reluctant to participate in exchanges than their counterparts in the rest of Europe.
I am well aware that going to stay with a family you have never met, grappling with a foreign language, different food (perhaps even eating horsemeat!) and different customs is a very scary prospect for many adults, let alone teenage boys and girls.
I do think, however, that it is a very valuable experience for all concerned, both hosts and guests.
I did my first exchange to France at the age of 15. In the very early 1960’s, foreign travel was not a common opportunity for most young people and this was a way of seeing something of the world without it costing a fortune.
The town where I grew up had twinned in the late 1950’s with Laval in France and we were the first group to participate in a school exchange.
I already knew my opposite number because the French had done the first leg of the exchange, but I wasn’t prepared for where she lived – in a village miles away from where my friends were to stay.
As we drove further and further into rural France (which, in those days, was particularly rural), I remember experiencing rising panic.
Once I got over that, my visit turned out to be a real success, to the extent that I would have been very happy to stay longer.
Only my pen friend spoke some English, so I had no choice but to speak French all the time.
The food was very different – when it was fish, for example, we went down to the fishmonger’s and to my initial horror, had to choose one of the fish swimming quite happily in a big tank.
It was then unceremoniously lifted out, banged on a slab and decapitated.
Milk was fetched on a daily basis in little churns from the local dairy farm. The family was a devout Catholic one, so I (brought up in a Methodist household) had the novel experience of attending Mass, not to mention having nuns regularly drop in for breakfast.
The visit was for me a life-changing experience.
I returned home after two weeks with my French vastly improved and having become a true Francophile – and the course of my life was set.
As, indeed, it was for my best friend, who eventually married the son of the family she stayed with and settled in France.
Of course, not all exchanges are a success. We have had some really awkward experiences with my two daughters and their exchange partners, not least a young woman from Hungary who played in a youth orchestra visiting Wetherby High School.
She didn’t speak one word of English, which made for interesting mealtimes – thank goodness for dictionaries.
I always used to say to my students before we went on an exchange – remember, you’re not marrying your exchange partner, just staying with them for a week.
Unfortunately, as we all know, teenagers of whatever nationality are not renowned for being reasonable.
As we are short of host families for the group coming from Privas in April, I have offered to accommodate one of the young people. I will let you know how it goes.
This will be the second time a group from Wetherby High School has exchanged with Privas in recent years.
Each visit requires a huge amount of commitment from the staff responsible for organising it. They need an endless amount of energy and enthusiasm to make the visit a success, which last year’s certainly was.
Organising travel and visits, sorting out the finances, pairing up the individual young people – it all takes a massive amount of time, especially on top of a heavy teaching load.
Taking other people’s children away is, in addition, a big responsibility.
I know that I had some pretty hairy moments on both visits and exchanges – usually related to alcohol abuse.
I very much hope that exchange visits will continue to take place in future years, not just to France, but to other countries as well.
Young people learn so much more from experiencing daily life with their peers in a foreign country than they ever will sitting on a beach in Majorca.