One of the biggest losses of Brexit, together with losing freedom of movement, is the end of the Erasmus project, which has enabled 9 million young people since 1987, including 15,000 British students per year, to experience studying or working in another European country.
For six years in the 1990s, I helped to organise an Erasmus exchange programme between two universities in the south of England and a teacher training institute in the Netherlands. Over this period, more than 200 primary teacher education students spent one to two weeks in Maastricht, during which they took part in courses such as art, music, drama and PE, learnt about the Dutch education system, visited local primary schools and undertook some teaching.
Social and cultural aspects were also important: students and lecturers stayed in each other’s homes and a programme of local historical tours and events was arranged. A return visit by Dutch students took place later in the year; for them, the exchange formed a mandatory part of their course, whilst for the British students it was a voluntary add-on.
Feedback on the exchanges was universally positive. Typical comments by British students included “It was the best part of the whole year”, or “the best second [teaching] placement ever!” One of the most striking aspects of the experience was the way that students started to look at their own experiences in a different light after visiting Dutch schools and nurseries.
For instance, UK students were amazed that Dutch children only started formal learning at the age of six, and surprised at the informal way they addressed their teachers (usually by first names). For their part, the Dutch students were shocked at how early reading and writing were taught in the UK, but impressed with the classroom displays in British schools. One British student wrote: “It made you look at your own school in a different way and appreciate things that you’d taken for granted before.”
The social aspects of the exchange were probably as important as the more formal ones. As one student said, “It was great to meet and stay with students from another country and see a bit how they lived.” The students (and lecturers) spent quite a lot of time enjoying the local beers with their Dutch hosts, hanging out in the numerous bars and cafés and taking part in Maastricht carnivals, which involved parades, live music and dancing. These activities gave a real insight into local customs and lifestyle.
The benefits of the exchange visits carried on after the students returned to the UK. The exchange groups shared what they’d learnt with other students by creating photo and art displays, and in schools by teaching simple Dutch songs and PE/drama activities that they had learnt. The increased confidence of the exchange groups was striking, and the impact of the experience was renewed when the Dutch students visited the UK a few months later.
Erasmus+: widening participation
Erasmus+ programmes were introduced in 2014, focusing on mobility in education and training, and promoting wider social inclusion. In 2018 I was lucky enough to be a mature participant in an Erasmus+ scheme, Leaders in Language, for recently-qualified English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers, spending a month teaching in northern Spain. Unlike the earlier Maastricht exchange students, most of whom were white, middle class 20-30-year-olds, this programme involved 20-70-year-olds from a range of ethnic, class and work backgrounds. The school I taught in was most impressive, a “well-oiled machine” as a fellow participant put it, with 2,000 3-18-year-olds and a multilingual approach: all children had classes in Spanish, Galician and English from the infants onwards.
Feedback from the participants (recorded in blogs) emphasised the “relaxed atmosphere” of the schools, friendly and helpful teachers, and “laid-back lifestyle”, and social aspects of the experience being as important as the teaching. The rewards of the experience also came with challenges: Sam wrote “It’s been a fantastic, exciting and exhausting experience,” while Anya observed: “Adapting to different teaching environments is all part of the journey.”
A common observation was the creative and interactive curriculum compared to UK schools: one school had an arts day, while another had a culture week. As the weeks went by, the blogs revealed increasing confidence and experimentation: Neil (65) noted, “I have been running workshops about water and taking part in dance sessions – a most unlikely activity for me.” Daria (25) wrote: “Without this experience I don’t think I’d have enough confidence or ability to go straight into the teaching world.” By the end of the month, six of the Coruña group had obtained teaching posts in Spain, and a further two went on to teach elsewhere in Europe. Others were continuing with EFL teaching in the UK.
Broken promises and false economy
Having previously promised that he would not close the Erasmus scheme, Boris Johnson then announced its closure in December 2020, citing expense as one of the main reasons. Peter Ricketts argues that this is “short-sighted and mean-spirited” and that the proposed Turing scheme will not replace the benefits of the current programmes. It is tragic that so many young and older people will not have the opportunity to take part in this unique, shared learning experience that has enabled a growth in mutual understanding and self-identity across Europe.
Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.