Home from home for Norwich students learning English

She started her language school with just a few students in her Norfolk home – today she brings more than 2,500 young people of all nationalities to the county every year. By ABIGAIL SALTMARSH.

Stroll through the streets of Norwich at this time of year and you may well be stopped by a young person from Spain, Russia or France and asked if you know who opened City Hall.

And to the delight of Carol Syder, director of The English Experience language school, the vast majority of passersby will stop to chat.

Carol launched the school back in 1994, setting up lessons for just a handful of young people in her home. Today, she holds classes in central Norwich, which are attended by more than 2,500 young people every year.

'The English Experience has gone from strength to strength,' said Carol, who arranges for the pupils to stay with local families while they are here, and who also runs courses abroad for a further 2,500 students every year.

'The students like coming here. It is a safe city that has all the shops and activities they like, as well as a lot of history. From here they can get to London and Cambridge and other places easily on excursions.'

She said Norfolk people were also very welcoming.

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'When the students have projects and have to ask people questions, most of them do stop to give their time,' she said. 'In fact, everyone from bus drivers to people on the street goes out of their way to be helpful.'

The increasing number of foreign students visiting Norfolk – through other language schools as well as The English Experience, and, of course, at UEA and other educational establishments – has benefits for Norfolk too. Not only does it boost the local economy (the students spend as typical teenagers do and also often shop heavily for British gifts and visit attractions), but it also brings a taste of other cultures right to our doorstep.

Thomas Vowles is the host family organiser at The English Experience, which is accredited by the British Council and also runs evening classes for adults. He currently has 160 families on his books and is always on the look out for more people to welcome the youngsters into their homes.

'It does give them a completely different experience of coming to England. If they come over and go on a residential course they tend not to have to speak as much English and they do not get to experience our way of life,' he said.

'But there are lots of benefits for the host families, as well as for the students. They learn more about the countries the students come from, for example.'

Host families are paid to look after the students but the youngsters do need to be treated as family members rather than paying guests.

'The houses do not have to be luxurious, these are normal families, but they do need to have a welcoming atmosphere. The safety of the child is paramount,' he stressed.

This means ensuring they know how to get themselves to school – and that they are on their way in good time. They must also eat breakfast and dinner with family members and are given a pack lunch to take to school.

The students have a busy programme of English lessons, activities and visits. When they attend the weekly disco, or arrive back late from a trip, families need to ensure they are met.

'Effectively the families need to look after the students as if they were their own children,' he pointed out.

'And the feedback we have from our students suggests this does happen. Many lasting friendships have been made between the families in Norfolk and those abroad.'

This year the school also held a summer extravaganza to which students and families were invited. It raised a total of �750 at the charity event for the East Anglia Children's Hospices.

Most of The English Experience's host families live in or around Norwich but some are in places such as Wymondham and Hethersett, and even Dereham.

The priority, said Thomas, was that there was a good, reliable bus service into Norwich.

As this year's busy season draws to a close and staff at the school begin preparing for a rush of students from February 2012, Carol says there are plans for further expansion.

Most of the youngsters come over with schools or in groups organised by agents in their home country.

As China has opened up, so more young people from the country are expressing an interest in visiting the UK, and Carol hopes to see more students also visiting from places like The Netherlands and Germany, too.

'I am still very excited by what we are doing here,' she said. 'I still enjoy the challenge of running the school and love opening Norwich up to so many people from all these different places.'

For more information about The English Experience or becoming a host family visit www.studyholidays.co.uk or call 01603 622300.