Safety checks for school exchanges

Safety checks for school trips! Whatever next, people cry. Disney characters behind glass screens at the Magic Kingdom? A counselling session after reading Roald Dahl’s BFG? The poor little darlings are far too overprotected. They will go on to grow up unexposed to reality, with no life skills and street sense. Knock ’em about a bit, make ’em suffer. That’s how it was in the good old days.

Well, maybe. But as someone who went on a foreign trip as a schoolgirl and had a pretty grim experience, I say bring on more stringent checks. The concept of packing off kids for a week in some random village in France is antiquated and could be dangerous.

Age 13, I set off with a friend on a French trip to La Rochelle. After a lengthy coach journey, everyone was met by host families with whom they would stay for the week. Teachers went off to the hotel, see you in the morning suckers!

My friend and I were met by a quiet man, who gruffly confirmed our names then packed us into his car. Half an hour later we were still driving through dark, desolate countryside.

Abrupt stop, and wordlessly we were deposited in what looked like a bleaker version of the shanty towns we had been studying that term in geography. Nearby, a huge alsatian was barking wildly. We were vaguely directed into a room, whereupon we were left. Alone. Not shown a bathroom, given no food. The man hadn’t even introduced himself. He might have known who we were, but we had no idea who he was. He could have been anyone, that’s the terrible thing.

Time passed till we eventually ventured out. Met with a hostile manner, but thankfully we managed to communicate in broken, Year 8 level French that we wanted to use a phone (This being BB, as in before Blackberry).

Not that there was one in the shack  house. The man, still silent, drove us half an hour away to a solitary phone box on the side of a road. My friend, distraught, broke into hysterical sobs to a family member back home.

What could have happened there? We will never know, because an alarmed parent had called the school, who took the very sensible decision to come and rescue us in the middle of the night.

In the end, we were fine. A new host family. A sweet old couple with a cat and a rural cottage were found. Baguettes for breakfast, coffee in a bowl, the ideal French trip experience.

But it could have gone horribly wrong, not just for me but for all those others put with families out for the money and not the welfare of a tounge tied teen. By all means, take kids on school holidays abroad. Expose them to new cultures and a polyglot lifestyle. But what parent in their right mind would send a child off to stay with a perfect stranger. It is no better than meeting a kindly internet friend and asking them to babysit.

More stringent checks, that’s all l’m saying. Because at least before GCSE, most school kids don’t know the French for ‘help I’m being abducted by a total stranger (who smells of garlic and eats something that looks suspiciously like a snail!)

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