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The French Exchange

Only specific research in the annals of The Boltonian will reveal the roots of The French Exchange.  I came across it in my interview with Ken Haigh in 1958 before joining the staff, and expressed some enthusiasm.  I must have overdone the enthusiasm, because when I started work, Ken took me under his wing and began to induct me into the process of organising the Exchange.  It took me a bit of courage to confess that I couldn't actually take part that year, something to do with getting married in the summer.

This gave rise to the situation where C M (Mac) Mills, an experienced trekker, was recruited  to lead the party.  I firmly believe the apocryphal tale that Clifford brought back and treasured the paper table-cloth that he regularly used in the family restaurant where he took his meals, and which was embellished with many pencil drawings of animals and their anatomy to illustrate what was on the menu that day.

Back to basics: the French Exchange was conceived as a bain linguistique, immersion in a French situation which would greatly improve one's understanding and mastery of the French language, and one's appreciation of the French way of life.  There were two legs to the Exchange: a fortnight in France during the Easter holiday, when Spring was usually well under way, and a return visit to this country at the end of the Summer Term, when there was a chance that the weather might be at least pleasant.  The Exchange was offered to Fourth Formers (in their third year!), for whom a correspondent and host family would be found.  Our partner school was the Lycée Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand.

To continue in factual mode for a moment: all such arrangements evolve, and the first sign of change that I was aware of was the increasing difficulty of finding a French member of staff willing to organise the exchange, host a visiting foreigner and then – horror of horrors! – devote two weeks of holiday to a work-related activity.  The time had come when professional resistance in French schools to any extra-curricular activity was growing.  By this time Ken Haigh had succumbed to a tragically early illness – brucellosis/undulant fever – and I had taken over all his functions.  So I had to deal with the fact that the Exchange organisers in France were not colleague teachers, but the Parents' Association.

This brought me into contact with Madame Rougier, whom I rapidly recognised as efficient, and then learned to appreciate as remarkable.

Madame Rougier deserves some separate comment, but first some memories of the phenomenon of group travel in the 1960s.  In the early days, neither Ken Haigh nor I had thought beyond public transport, ie rail.  We may have had a coach to take the group to Manchester Piccadilly.  Thereafter it was train, underground, train, ferry, train, Métro, train – all of which could add up to a twenty-hour journey.  Constructing this journey was a major administrative task.  Carrying it out was a stressful business.

For several years, without a murmur of complaint from any authority, I led these groups, usually about twenty boys, on my own.  I remember reflecting that, once the wheels of the relevant conveyance began to roll under us, I could relax for a while.  It was the in-between bits that could be traumatic.

Crossing two capital cities was a particular obstacle.  'Follow the hat, boys' was the regular mantra as the increasingly battered Tatman trilby was raised in the air.  Most of the time it worked, but when it didn’t …

Which terminal station was it that required a lift to get from underground transport to surface level train?  I remember cramming all my crew into the UP lift, piling out at the top, doing the ritual head count – one short!  'Don’t move, I’ll go and find Jones Minor.'  A brief descent to a totally empty underground platform.  Back up again in a frustratingly slow lift.  'He came up just after you went down, Sir, and he’s gone back down to find you.'  You could write a play.

More un-nerving was a comparable instance in Paris, when, for some forgotten reason, it had been decided to walk from Paris north terminus to Paris south.  Fifteen minutes tops.  'Follow the hat!'  Second head count – one short.  Even energetic teenagers could be over-loaded with luggage and fall behind.  Three-man search parties in most directions came up with no Smith Minor.  Everybody has been briefed on details of the journey; has he been able to cope on his own?  Essential thing now is to get the main group to the station and then raise the alarm.  First thing we see at the station is two policemen indulgently guarding Smith Minor, whose expression is just short of smug: 'What took you so long?'

Back for a moment to speak of Madame Marie-Josef Rougier, who left a lasting impression on me.  She was one of those people who joined or created voluntary bodies, and almost automatically rose to the top in a very short time.  She constantly attended meetings, sometimes far and wide.  And she told me about the time she went to a meeting in Paris – under the German Occupation during the Second World War.

In the early stages of the war only the north and west of France was occupied by German forces.  The south and east, loosely referred to as Vichy France, was allowed to look after itself under the leadership of the pro-German politician Pierre Laval.  Clermont-Ferrand was in this sector of France.

Madame Rougier found that if getting into the Occupied Zone was possible, getting out again was a completely different matter.  Barred by German uniforms at frequent check-points, ill-informed even in German about train changes and cancellations, she struggled through a nightmare of a journey back to her family in Clermont-Ferrand.

During the later stages of the war Clermont-Ferrand was a microcosm of reactions throughout Europe to occupation by German forces.  The fairly wild countryside round Clermont favoured the French Resistance.  Attacks on the Germans increased, as did the severity of reprisals, and the consequent interplay and manoeuvrings of the local population became increasingly bitter.

All this is not heading where the reader might think.  Madame Rougier emerged from the war years with an unshakable conviction: that whatever the military and the politicians might dream up, the people of Europe had more than connected than divided them.  'All that must never happen again.'

She set up links between the people of Clermont-Ferrand, and a German city (maybe Düsseldorf, memory is very vague here) in a move that may well have pre-dated the whole Town Twinning movement.

So that was the lady who ran the French side of our French Exchange.

Of course, being who she was, Madame Rougier was Chairman of the Parents' Association not only of the Lycée Blaise Pascal, the boys' school, but also of the Lycée Jeanne d’Arc, the girls' school across the road.  Before long the evident success of the link with Bolton began to rouse stirrings to set up a comparable link between the two schools for girls.

It proved impossible to engage the Girls' Division in such a project, and gradually it became clear that the two French schools needed a joint pupil exchange that Bolton at the time could not provide.

This was about the time – the early '70s – that Bolton was belatedly seeking its own Town Twinning partner though the European link process, and came up with Le Mans, already linked with Paderborn – thereby hang more tales – but with no English partner.

Once the Twinning was completed, it seemed the right time for Bolton School to change direction, and we made an approach to Le Mans to see if a new exchange partner school could be found.

We approached the authorities in Le Mans, starting with the Mayor's office, and came up with an unexpected surprise.  A courteous but brief and unusually rapid response informed us that there was no suitable partner school in Le Mans.

English sources told us 'What did you expect?'  Bolton School held Direct Grant status and charged fees for students not on the ‘free place’ scheme.  It could therefore be classed as 'a school for rich kids'.  A recent local election in Le Mans had returned one of the last ever Communist councils in France.  An exchange partnership for any local school with a fee-paying school in England?  Unthinkable!

The new Mayor, Robert Jarry, proved to be one of the most successful and respected Mayors of Le Mans, but that is by the way.  As a gesture of sort of goodwill, a school outside the boundaries of Le Mans was suggested as an exchange partner, and we took up negotiations with Pruillé-le-Chétif.

Bolton School was still offering only single-sex groups, and so here again the link limped along for a couple of years, until something changed.

What did change was the arrival of a new Head of French in the Girls' Division.  I had met Madame Anne-Marie Hutchings at a professional conference, and we had the basis for a good working relationship.  Suddenly, the prospect of creating a single boys and girls French Exchange became a real possibility.

As so often in these matters, personal contacts provided the seed from which a wider link emerged.  Someone knew someone connected with the Lycée St Benoît in Moulins, in central France.  Contact was made, negotiations took place, and the first ever joint boys and girls exchange was founded.

There is frustratingly less to say about a successful, and now long-lived, exchange partnership.

Lessons had to be learned about the different life-styles at both ends of the exchange.  Moulins is several miles short of being a bustling metropolis.  It's a county town, yes, but many of the students lived in surrounding rural areas, staying, as I did on more than one occasion, on a working farm.  There the day began impossibly early for some Bolton mind-sets, and host parents had to develop unusual tolerance for English 'holiday' getting up time.

Flies, I remember, were an unwelcome surprise to some of our students.  Not to be greeted with horror and instant aerosol, but simply an inevitable part of the farm scene.  Weekend leisure time was another difference; I remember when two or three of our girls had obviously planned to get together for an afternoon, and were deposited by indulgent but mystified host families in the town centre, only to discover that at that time on a Saturday Moulins, unlike Bolton, was closed.

At the other end of the exchange, some of the French youngsters were to discover that the legendary liberty, not to say licence, of our country remained a legend only, and that Bolton families were as protective and watchful of their young guests as they were of their own children.

One of the keywords of an exchange might be conscious sharing, awareness of a mutual learning process.  I treasure the memory of over-hearing two exchange boys, possibly not from Bolton School, as they toured Bolton’s Open Market.  'Hey up John(sic)-Pierre, look here: them’s apples, and them’s purrs.'

It often struck me that one of the ways to judge the success of an individual exchange was the moment of departure at the end of the stay.  It seemed normal for girls to fall into each other’s arms and be a bit tearful; boys get up to no such things, but commonly enough our boys had to submit to tears and embraces from the French mother.  Only the once, to my knowledge, did the two boys remain in contact for long enough for the French échangiste to be invited to his English partner's wedding.

When Michael Tatman retired, responsibility for the Exchange in the Boys' Division passed briefly to Peter Harrison, and then to Carl Robson, who was eventually to succeed Mike Townson as Head of French, and who is still in charge of the Boys' Division side of the Exchange.  It became clear as time went on that one could no longer assume, either in England or in France, that a parent would normally be present in the home during the working day, and that it would not always be possible to reconcile the two schools' calendars in such a way that the bulk of the Exchange period would, without impacting too heavily on plans for family holidays, fall outside term time.  This resulted in something of a change of emphasis in the Exchange programme, which began to feature more group activities for visiting pupils and less reliance on host families to entertain their young guests.  Such a development brought with it greater financial burdens, but nevertheless, some quite ambition excursions proved possible, be it to Futuroscope near Poitiers in France, or to Beamish in the north-east of England.  The essence of the Exchange remains, however, the same: the opportunity to spend time in a foreign family, using the country's language, and experiencing a new and different way of life.

Michael Tatman, Staff 1958-1993