In November last year three students and four teachers set off on a school exchange from Warrington to Frankfurt, Germany.
It wasn’t the first time either. This is a school exchange in the truest sense of the phrase. Staff and students from Frankfurt have visited Chaigeley and we sent a cohort in 2016 too.
One of the things that struck me the most about the first school was the lack of security. I’ve worked in inner city Birmingham where we had two school based police officers; mag locks and sliding gates for entry. Having to sign in at reception is standard practice at any school in the UK. But the school in Frankfurt is located at a busy road junction near a retail park, in one of the suburbs, where you could just walk right in off the streets.
The students here were all high functioning autistic pupils who had previously attended mainstream school in Germany. Each of them had a high IQ and they all spoke English to some degree- many of them fluently.
We sat in a year 12 and year 13 lesson. Three kids from the North West of England with four of their teachers. The lesson was about the storming of the Bastille. The teacher had one resource: an A4 piece of paper with writing on both sides. In English. The whole lesson was conducted in English for our benefit. It turns out that teaching young people to communicate in English is a high priority in German schools. My cousin lives in Berlin and she was telling me that, when she uses public transport with the children, she often hears native Germans whispering to their children, “shush… listen to them… they’re speaking English…” Having a good command of the English language is important to Germans. As an English teacher myself working in the UK, it seems that in some senses, the German desire to understand the English language is far greater than that of many of our own young, native English speakers.
In the afternoon we visited a mathematical museum: a treasure trove of Pythagorean puzzles. Our German friends came with us and we all stopped at McDonald’s on the way home.
Our lodgings, by the way, were an old monastery. We arrived in the darkness on a freezing cold, pitch black November evening and were quickly whisked away to the local pizzeria for our evening meal – a lovely evening with our hosts. The excitement of the day proved a little too much at bed time, so when Raddu arrived in the morning, one of us had barely had three hours sleep.
Day two – Wednesday – and a new school to visit. This one was a lot more like Chaigeley: a sort of semi-rural setting, with large grounds that backed on to allotments. We took part in a PE lesson. England versus Germany at hockey – a pulsating 5-5 draw. Followed by a game that they’d made up: some weird handball-with-a-football-over-a-rope game. They won.
What struck me most though was the sports hall. We’re so spoilt at Chaigeley: our gym is purpose built with basketball hoops, football goals and floor markings; we’ve got nets and hoops and a punchbag and we also make use of a local boxing gym. Their facilities – not just in PE but across all three schools we visited – were really poor compared to ours. The German classrooms I saw looked like British classrooms from the 1980s. The only thing missing was chalk!
Our kids joined in making lunch for everyone, then in the afternoon we visited the Christmas market in the centre of Frankfurt.
It is an impressive city. There was a gigantic map on the floor of the shopping centre: an aerial view of Frankfurt. The airport is an International hub, with flights arriving and departing from all over the world. The size and scale of it was quite apparent as we walked across the map. Apparently, 15% of the population of the city work in the airport. It’s vast!
When we got back home the kids got their diaries filled in and one of them did a show and tell about their market purchases. And all three were in total agreement: German McDonalds is nowhere near as good as English Maccys!
We set off home and had time in the airport for lunch at Burger King, whilst being serenaded by three festive angels with a microphone who were walking round the airport.
Having enjoyed a leisurely meal and perused the duty free shop, we found ourselves having to dash for the plane in the end: the airport is so big it was a twenty minute bus ride across the runways to get to the plane.
A short yet sleepy flight home saw us being dropped off at school, back where we started, around four in the afternoon.
It was a truly wonderful trip. Without doubt, the best school trip I’ve ever taken part in and one we would all love to do again I’m sure.
And I’m sure we’d all agree that, as much as Frankfurt is a wonderful place to visit, being in such delightful company made it all the better.