Education: Foreign to expectations: Margaret McGowan looks at the pitfalls of sending your children on exchange visits

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The Independent Online
IN OUR enthusiasm to make our children good Europeans, capable of more than stuttered requests for baguettes or brot, we may embrace the entente cordiale a little too hastily - or so some parents think. Their children have taken part in the annual summer ritual of the exchange visit, and for some the culture shock was too much.

Jessica Byron, 15, from Richmond in Surrey, went to stay with a single- parent German family. It was only when she reached the pretty lakeside town that Jessica discovered that 'Mutter' had been in hospital for six weeks and she would be alone in the flat with the German teenager.

'Jess phoned us the first evening and told us,' says Chris Byron. 'We weren't happy about it at all. In fact, we were very, very cross. But Jess wanted to stay and we were very worried about the little German girl; if we made a fuss, Jessica would be taken away from her. In the end we decided that we wouldn't make a stand about it, especially as Jess told us that the school knew all about it.'

Jessica's teacher, however, had not been told of the arrangement by the German school. When, three days into the visit, he learnt of the problem he insisted that the girls moved in with an adult.

'Her teacher was horrified,' says Chris. 'The school works terribly hard to arrange these visits and I should hate to discourage them. Even so, if we exchanged again I would look much more carefully into arrangements and ask more questions. We fell into the trap of stereotyping Germans as leading very organised lives - an assumption that turned out to be wrong.'

'There's an accident waiting to happen on an exchange holiday,' says Ann Cook, a London teacher whose son, Edward, recently returned from a visit to Montpellier.

Edward had a doubly bad experience of exchanges. When his French guest physically bullied him towards the end of his trip, Edward's parents arranged for him to stay with a different family for the return visit.

'We knew this family were not so well off,' admits Ann, 'so we warned Edward not to expect too much in the way of visits to museums and places of entertainment.'

But when the first phone call home told of evenings spent on the street with gangs of youths, smoking and drinking, Ann and her husband, Michael, a bank manager, were alarmed. 'We really feared for Edward's safety,' she says. 'It was difficult to know what we could do from this distance. We'd already complained about the first exchange and we were conscious that Edward had that to live down as he was at the same school in Montpellier.'

In fact, Edward's new exchange turned out to be a good-natured boy, despite his chaotic family life. 'It was just as well they got on, as they were sharing a bedroom the size of a cupboard,' says his mother.

'Meals were pretty erratic, too. Edward is used to enormous bowls of muesli for breakfast and he couldn't get over the fact that all he was given was a bowl of hot chocolate. When it came to lunch, he had to beg it from schoolfriends staying with more organised families. At the end of the visit the family ran out of petrol and he had to make his own way by bus to meet up with the English party.

'But in the end the only thing he really missed was his sleep,' says Ann. 'Bedtime was usually around midnight.'

Horror stories of British vegetarian teenagers being fed daily chunks of cheese by uncomprehending Continental families and British families coping with surly French and German teenagers abound. But there are success stories, too.

For Sylvia O'Leary, 42, currently spending six months in south-west France with her three children, a schoolgirl exchange resulted in a lifelong friendship and persuaded her to buy a second home near Armagnac.

'Elisabeth and I got our exchange through an organisation which matched up families very carefully,' she says. 'We had to fill in a long and complicated form that asked everything from how many bathrooms and bedrooms we had to how much our fathers earned and the population of the nearest town. It paid off because we were matched up really, really well. We were both brought up in the country. We lived on a dairy farm near Reigate and Elisabeth's father was a gentleman farmer near Reims.

'The first time we exchanged through the scheme and after that we just made our own arrangements. The visits tailed off a bit when we married and were having babies but we still sent letters and Christmas cards. Then, when the children got a bit older, the visits started up again.

'Elisabeth's family has a country house down here which was why we bought a house here, too.'

For the last four months Sylvia has been living there with her three children who have attended the local school in order to give their French a boost. 'Our children are similar ages,' she says. 'They feel quite close to each other.'

Niall Mitchell, 13, of Stainton, near Penrith, Cumbria, took pot luck when his family agreed to accommodate a girl because the Normandy school exchanging with Ullswater High couldn't provide enough boys. They got on so well, his family are considering fixing up further visits between the two teenagers.

'My friend, Andrew, and I were the only boys who exchanged with girls,' says Niall, who explained they went out as a foursome. 'We went bowling to Carlisle and Andrew's mother took us to Blackpool.'

Niall thinks the visits worked because the families were well matched. Cecile's family lived in a small town called Charleval, where her father owned a shoe shop. 'They called it a village but it was a bit bigger than Stainton,' says Niall, whose father runs an outdoor activities centre beside Ullswater. His family regard the exchange as an excellent way to motivate Niall's language learning and think Cecile - sporty, beautiful and bright - has done Niall's 'street cred' no harm at all.

'These family exchanges are always a gamble,' admits Dr Joanna Le Metais, head of the Education Policy Information Centre. 'To a large extent one has to take on trust that the exchange parents are responsible individuals.'

There are some steps parents can reasonably take, she suggests, to ward off disaster, but she warns against sending children off armed with lists of guidelines and health and safety regulations - action unlikely to endear them to their hosts.

It might be worth parents getting together at the school beforehand to hammer out a few guidelines that cover the most important areas, such as an adult being present in the home, she says. 'It's also worth asking the school if there is any way you can establish contact with the exchange partner before to talk about what you think is reasonable for your child.' The family may be relieved to discuss their concerns with you too, she adds. That way questions of supervision, bedtime, diet and safety can be sorted out before the visit.