King James’s School is proud to have forged links with Bebra in Germany, Privas in France, and Mongegba in Sierra Leone.
This year we are proudly celebrating 40 years of the annual school exchange with Knaresborough’s twin town of Bebra.
In the summer of 1974 the first party of pupils from the Bruder-Grimm-Schule came to visit, but as former languages teacher Alan Hemsworth remembers, the exchange was very nearly still-born. “We had serious difficulties in finding accommodation for all the pupils and only a last-minute appeal in the local paper saved the day.” In the end two pupils stayed with the local milkman, two with the proprietor of a local coach company and two in a caravan at the bottom of a garden.
Since then hundreds of local families and students have been involved, with KJS groups visiting Bebra one year and the Germans coming here the next.
The school’s original aims in promoting the exchange were simple but important, and still hold good today: to promote tolerance, understanding and friendship, and a desire for pupils of all ages to learn a foreign language. In an era when taking a foreign language to GCSE level is no longer compulsory the exchange is still seen by KJS as a key opportunity for students to widen their experience, and the Bebra programme is believed to be one of the longest running in English schools.
“It is vital that language students have the opportunity of using the language in real situations,” said languages teacher Julie Allison, who is in charge of this year’s exchange. “It allows students to really integrate into the German way of life and experience first-hand German family life.”
Head of languages Nathalie Bourre added: “Foreign exchanges remain one of the calendar highlights of any adventurous school. I feel privileged to teach in a school which can pride itself on running three exchanges (Germany, France and Spain). Quite a jewel in King James’s crown!”
There have been some adventures down the years and some lifelong friendships have been forged, between both pupils and staff. The early years saw English coach drivers thinking Bebra was in Belgium, or taking the party on several circuits of industrial Rotterdam. In later years one German group here enjoyed the company of a coach driver who spoke their language and provided valuable insights into English geography and culture - and who just happened to have been a former KJS pupil who was grateful for the chance to have taken part in the exchange himself.
Over the 40 years much has changed. Bebra used to be in the east of the old West Germany, and a visit to the border, with its minefields, armed guards and watchtowers was on our students’ itinerary. In 1990, after reunification, the visiting party here included former East Germans, on their first visit to England, and the following year KJS students were able to visit formerly inaccessible parts of the old East.
“The border is now virtually invisible,” said Mr Hemsworth. “Where once there was an East German border control point and an air of menace there is now a huge McDonald’s. The air of menace remains, but only if you don’t like Big Macs. The East German jewels of Eisenach, Erfurt and Weimar now very much on the itinerary.”
And where exchange students used to rely on pen and paper to stay in touch they now keep up friendships via Skype and Facebook.
Some things, and people, remain. Visitors here enjoy Knaresborough ghost walks, trips to Harrogate, York and Whitby and the young Germans are fascinated and/or confused by English food, KJS uniforms, the size of our school and more. Mr Hemsworth was in charge 40 years ago and, despite having now retired, will be with the party of students and staff when they go to Germany at the end of the month.
His contribution to the warm relations between the two towns was officially marked when in 2004 he was awarded the freedom of the State of Hessen, an honour rarely bestowed on foreigners. The 40th anniversary is being marked with further civic celebrations, at which KJS Headteacher Carl Sugden will be a special guest.
“There’s nothing that isn’t positive about exchange trips. We’ve had a few problems with homesickness, but no disasters. It’s a rite of passage, and the motivation to learn the language increases exponentially,” said Mr Hemsworth.
Now here´s to the next 40 years of our partnership!
Each year, King James’s students from Years 10 to 12 have the opportunity to take part in a French exchange with students from a school in Privas in France. All enjoy the experience of showing their Exchange partner the sights of North Yorkshire, as well as the return visit to a French family.
Back in 1983 a former Deputy Head at King James’s, Ken Stone, founded a primary school in Mongegba, Sierra Leone. Along with church support to lease the land, Ken arranged for the Sixth Form to sponsor the school, even paying the salaries of the teachers. The school named itself King James Primary School, Mongegba.
King James’s School Knaresborough has supported the Mongegba school ever since, although direct contact was interrupted during the civil war and always remains challenging due to a lack of electricity, telephone or postal service in the village. Mr Sugden went to Sierra Leone and visited the school in 2008, which was the first significant contact since the end of the civil war. Since that visit we have been able to support the school financially to secure the legal rights to their land.