An exchange with a visible difference

Pupils at Royal National College for the Blind preparing themselves for employment

Transferable and vocational skills are providing a focal point for an exchange between specialist colleges for visually impaired students in the UK and France. 

‘A helping hand’

The exchange between the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) and Cité Scolaire René Pellet (CSRP) funded by Charles de Gaulle and Lefèvre Trust allowed a group of blind, partially sighted and sighted students to travel abroad and meet their peers from their international partner college. During the visit to France the sighted French students were trained to guide a blind or partially sighted student from the UK. While they were trained by the RNC mobility team they wore blindfolds, which made them feel vulnerable and led them to better appreciate the needs of their blind friends. Despite having varied language skills the students were all able to communicate with each other and share their experiences in a mixture of French and English. ‘The English students were shocked that French students were not used to explaining what they could or could not see’, says French teacher Claire Lewin. ‘Being able to talk openly about their own eye conditions to others can often help students with visual impairments find better support.’

Magic moments and using French in France

Finding out that you can communicate with other young people from other countries – without having perfect grammar – can be a very liberating experience. Before the trip to Lyon, Jenny Louloudis from the RNC, who was studying NVQ Level 1 French at the time, was worried that she might not be understood in France. However, once she arrived she gained confidence and enjoyed having conversations in French and meeting locals. ‘Most people were patient when I was explaining things and didn’t mind if I got a few words out of place’, she said, ‘so I’m not worried anymore’.

Claire also reflected on students from the UK and France socialising together: ‘One evening we gathered around the table in the halls of residence and one of the students got out their guitar. Both French and English students and staff ended up singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – it was a magical moment. We were also invited to have French food with local families in their homes which gave students more opportunities to talk more intimately and to learn about French culture first-hand.’ 

Gaining international work experience 

Only one third of people of working age in the UK registered as visually impaired are in employment, so teaching transferable and vocational skills is a priority at the RNC. 

‘We want to prepare our students for the world of employment. We are working hard to integrate work-based learning into all areas of the curriculum, including international visits’, says Claire. When in France, Charlotte Lamparter, who is currently studying Support Work in Schools, had the chance to work in a French primary school, which was her favourite part of the trip. ‘I attended lessons with different age groups and had the opportunity to observe and understand how French teachers taught their students. I really enjoyed the activities and would recommend the experience of doing work experience abroad to anyone.’ 

Sitting on the panel and tailored communication

The exchange between the RNC and CSRP is between whole colleges, not just language departments. Recently, BTEC Business Level 3 students at RNC had an opportunity to work closely with the visiting French students on employment skills. They prepared job descriptions for work placements, and asked the French students to go through a selection process with written applications and face-to-face interviews. 

Although the RNC students were initially nervous about conducting the interviews themselves, the experience made them feel more confident about applying for jobs in the future. The process of sitting on the interview panel allowed them to see what makes a good first impression on an employer, even when the interviewer is unable to see the candidate.

‘As some of the French students had limited levels of English, our students concentrated on making their speech and questions very clear so they could be understood. Tailoring their communication style to non-native speakers of English was a challenge, but a positive experience for them’, said Claire. The French students were also keen to participate and became more confident in their own abilities when they were able to communicate with English ‘employers’ without the safety net of a teacher.

Challenge yourself

The relationship between the two schools continues to improve; teachers share pedagogy, and students are still in touch and share experiences. 

‘Taking part in an exchange really brings classroom learning to life. By experiencing daily life from the perspective of a peer in another country, our students have become more understanding and tolerant’, says Claire.

A former student, who will be returning during the next visit to France as a volunteer, says, ‘I believe that this exchange made me who I am today in a subtle but powerful way. I was able to talk to others with the same condition as me in a different language.  I wasn’t ‘the lone blind kid’ anymore.  I realised I could travel abroad without much help. For the first time ever, I could look in the mirror (well, sort of) and say I’m proud to be who I am, ‘je suis fière de moi.’

If you already have a partner school in France or the UK you can apply for a £5000 grant to plan reciprocal visits and extended project work. Find out how.

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