Page last updated at 19:41 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Mother defends 'extreme' French exchange

Katy Salmon and Jonathan Salmon
Katy Salmon with her nine-year-old son Jonathan

Would you send your young child abroad to live with another family for six months?

Katy Salmon and her young son talked to BBC Radio 5 live's Victoria Derbyshire about the "extreme exchange" scheme.

In six weeks' time, Jonathan Salmon will travel to France - where for six months he'll stay with a French family he's barely met.

Jonathan will be calling his new "parents" mummy and daddy, he will attend a French school and be forced to speak in French - despite knowing little of the language.

Contact with his family will be limited to letters and one telephone call a week.

Jonathan is nine years old.

"Anxious"

"We are really strongly discouraged from actually seeing him," says Katy Salmon.

"The only circumstance in which I would see him is if there is a problem that I feel I need to get out there and talk to him face-to-face."

Ms Salmon, who used to teach languages in a secondary school, admits that she is concerned about the "extreme exchange" trip, which has been organised by French firm En Famille International.

"I'm very, very anxious about it", she told BBC Radio 5 live's Victoria Derbyshire.

"We actually home educate, so I'm used to having all the children around all the time, and sort of knowing as soon as there's any problem and being able to deal with it straightaway, and obviously that's not going to be the case when he's in France."

But while his mother may be worried, Jonathan says that he's "very excited" about living abroad and chose to go so that he can "learn good French and know other people".

Jonathan and his family, who are based in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, heard about the scheme from friends who also home educated their children.

They found out more after attending a national meeting.

Trust

"We thought we'd go along and just get some information, really, thinking that it was something we might do when Jonathan was maybe 12, but probably not something we wanted to do straightaway", says Ms Salmon, 37, whose three other children are aged two, five and seven.

"We went along to the meeting and listened to families who'd done it, and talked to the children who'd been, and Jonathan just came out completely enthused, desperate to do it straightaway."

She says that she trusts the scheme's organisers - former teacher Jacques Pinault and his wife Katherine - and feels confident that families and children have been well-matched:

The whole point is that it works best if you're... totally immersed in another culture and another family for six months.
Katy Salmon

"[Jacques] meets every single family and every single exchange person - the children and the parents and the whole family - and he talks to everybody individually, gets as much information as he can about everything - lifestyle, attitudes to discipline, how the family works, bedtimes, really everything."

The Salmon family are currently hosts to French exchange guest, nine-year-old Mayeul, who has been staying with them for five months; Jonathan will stay with Mayeul's family in France.

The two families met when Mayeul travelled to England last year.

"We'd e-mailed and we'd seen all their information.

"There's this huge long form with loads of photos and everything about sort of how you feel about parenting - really, everything - and that's all that we had."

Immersed

Ms Salmon argues that languages are best learnt before the age of 11 - which is when British schools usually start teaching languages.

She feels that this exchange scheme, which has been running for more than 30 years, is the most effective way for her son to learn a new language:

"The whole point is that it works best if you're kind of totally immersed in another culture and another family for six months, and you live as part of that family because then you can really see what it's really like, as it were, to be French, for six months, but knowing that you're going back to your family and that you've still got a place there too."

Ms Salmon says the scheme provides sufficient contact between parents and their child - enough to keep in touch, but "not so much that you end up feeling homesick and torn between the two families" - but she says she can understand why some people may disapprove of her son living abroad as part of the scheme.

"I have to admit... when we first looked into it, I was thinking that nine was too young, but he has thought it through," she told BBC Radio 5 live.

"I know that our second child, for example, already he just thinks it's a horrible idea and there's no way he'd ever go, and I can completely understand that as well, and I won't be pushing him to do it at all, however well it goes this time.

"If he doesn't want to, that's entirely up to him.

"But the nine-year-old does and he's ready, or feels he's ready, and we'll take it day-by-day and step-by-step, and see how it goes."



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