School Matters with Dennis Richards OBE

Students from the Associated Sixth Form in Annemasse.

Students from the Associated Sixth Form in Annemasse.

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In France as I write this. In Annemasse, just a few kilometres from the Swiss border and Geneva, that glorious epitome of European history and culture. The students I am accompanying, just as I have done for the past two decades or more, are here on a European work experience visit.

And so to Geneva. Ultra chic shops, and some of Europe’s most famous hotels, centre of countless international peace talks, all in a spectacular location alongside one of the world’s great lakes.

Associated with UNESCO and the Red Cross, Geneva is also a citadel of the European Reformation, celebrating the 500th anniversary of its birth this year.

The students are open-mouthed in front of the great Mur de la Reforme (The Reformation Wall).

They appear transfixed as I wax lyrical about its connections with our own history, Henry VIII, the destruction of Fountains Abbey and Calvinism.

I bring my gripping exposition of this seminal moment in European history to a ringing conclusion. “Any questions?”

Silence. Eventually I spot Joe hesitantly attracting my attention.

I mentally prepare for a searching enquiry about theological difference. “No, I think you’ve just about covered it Sir”, says Joe, “Is there a McDonald’s in Geneva?”

The main purpose of our visit is to give our students experience, not only of the French way of life, but also of their places of work.

Working in a French cafe, in a primary school, with the local police, or in a garden centre can be a life-changing experience. Indeed, one of our helpers this year is a former student who participated in this exchange four years ago.

Two of our students are working in an old people’s home.

Since, currently, the quality of our social care is such a controversial issue back home, it is a highly relevant and interesting placement.

They will learn, and see at first hand, how our closest neighbouring country looks after its old people.

They also have a gilt-edged opportunity to change this establishment’s perception of British students.

A couple of years ago, our placement students were asked to cook or bake something so uniquely British, the residents would learn something different about us.

They would also enjoy a gastronomic treat.

What could be more British or delicious than a Victoria sponge?

Unfortunately our students’ enthusiasm for the project, based on watching a few episodes of “The Great Bake Off”, was not matched by expertise.

Their first effort turned out to be so flat and moist, it could only be eaten with a dessert spoon.

The second attempt, inevitably perhaps, was the reverse. It could only be eaten with a hammer and chisel.

My advice to this year’s students is to stick to telling them about the Queen. French OAPs love her to bits.

But some things are more important than baking and arcane religious disputes.

Rose is working in the Marianne Cohn nursery school in Annemasse.

The school takes its name from a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

At that time, Annemasse’s close proximity to the Swiss border made it a key escape route into neutral Switzerland.

Marianne Cohn was hiding Jewish children in “safe” houses close to the border.

A border across which, nowadays, the French and Swiss move freely backwards and forwards several times a day.

75 years ago it was the difference between life and death. The EU looks very different over here.

At the beating heart of Europe, peace is more important than a good trade deal.

Marianne Cohn was arrested by the Gestapo and assassinated on July 8, 1944.

She was 22 years old.