The Wood Family


When Thomas Woods as nine he left his home in Clitheroe and went to live with a French family in Niort for Six months.

He went to school there with his French ‘brother’ Valentin, and every lesson was taught totally in French. After six months, he was fluent in the language. When he returned home Valentin nicknamed Le Kid Cantona when a national newspaper flew him back to England for an under 11s cup final – came to spend six months with Thomas and his family in Clitheroe.

Now aged 18, Thomas looks back fondly on that time…

I remember vividly coming home from school one day to be met by mum waving a leaflet about ‘Thomas, how about spending six months in France…on your own with a French family’ The Idea sounds crazy now but at that age it was even more daunting ‘Are you crazy’ I thought ‘Why would my parents want to get rid of me? Did they not like me?’

Despite my initial dubious reaction the more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea. My parents were very enthusiastic as they could see the benefits, having lived abroad themselves albeit at a much later stage in their lives. I decided to go for it. Although I was only nine I could see that it was a great opportunity. I could learn a new language, experience another culture, make new friends.

So I filled in an application form and travelled down to Stratford upon Avon for an Interview to pair me up with French partner. Even at this stage it seemed a long way off and I was not worried about the prospect of leaving my family. However, when I was paired with Valentin and invited to go and meet him and his family in the north of France I began to get the jitters. The exchange was only a month away and I was to be the one to travel first.

I felt a sense of anticipation and fear at the same time. I had been away from home before but six months! I felt like calling it off but something inside me told me I would be missing the chance of a lifetime. Arriving at Valentin’s house in the west of France I was nervous but when my parents left for England three days later I was petrified. I didn’t want the farewells to end.


But within days of my parents leaving I felt at home. Life in France was all that I expected and more. Communicating was not too difficult. French children learn English from the age of nine and many or my new friends had a good grasp of it already which helped me while I picked up French. Within six weeks I was fairly fluent and had almost forgotten how to speak English!

I fitted into everyday life easily. I joined Valentin’s football club and began to play handball, which is one of France’s national sports. I had become friends with all of Valentin’s friends and every weekend there was a gathering at one another’s houses. My French family enjoyed entertaining their friends and every other week there would be a dinner party which went on until the early hours. It was great, playing hide and seek Nintendo while the adults ate and drank. That’s another thing about France, the food. even at that age I was a food lover so I found the beautifully barbecued meats and mouth-watering desserts just too tempting. I would often go back for thirds and fourths

Experiencing school was a reason to go on its own. I wasn’t used to arriving at 8am and not leaving until 5pm. The subjects were different as the French was split into sections Grammar, Dictation. Literature. All the children studied English and they were at a much higher level in maths. Imagine learning about pi at the age of nine in a foreign language. Of course there were some similarities – canteen food was terrible I loved sports lessons and football was always top the agenda. I had to adjust to some things in every day life too. When we came back from school we used to eat what was called ‘gouter’ which was cereals, sweet breads and chocolate spread, but dinner was a lot later about 8.30 which meant I was starving. My French family thought I was greedy because I cleared my plate and every body else’s.

Two-and-a-half months into the exchange though it came to a bit of a standstill. I broke my leg on a skiing holiday in the Alps and was stretchered off the mountain side and was in plaster for two months. When I rang home to break the news my mother burst into tears and I genuinely felt like coming home. Initially I was bed bound for a couple of weeks but once I started walking on crutches it was as if nothing had ever happened.

Of course I couldn’t play football or handball but there was still so much to do. The family holidays continued. A trip to Paris, visiting relatives in the north, seeing Valentin’s grandparents in the vineyards of Bergerac and a summer holiday camping on the Ile de Re just after coming out of plaster. I experienced many different things and visited almost every corner of France.

One lasting memory is celebrating the 90th birthday of Valentin’s grandma in a huge restaurant. Everyone was sat in a big rectangle of tables and seven courses were served over three hours. In between courses all the children played huge games of football in the evening sun. It just summed up what being in France was all about

It opened up a whole new world for me.

So what did I gain from my exchange? Well the most obvious advantage is that I am now totally fluent in French. I have been back almost every year since the exchange to visit everybody and top up my accent. I took my GCSE at 14 and I did A-level French.

I now plan to study French and linguistics at Leeds University. I know that it’s going to help me find a good job in the future because languages are so important in modern life. Being fluent in French has helped me pick up other languages easily as well. I got an A* grade in German as GCSE and I am going to try Spanish at Uni. I have the opportunity to work and live abroad which many people wouldn’t consider.

Apart from the obvious language skills that I gained on my exchange I feel I learned so much in those six months. I gained from the independence I had because even though my French ‘parents’ were like a mum and dad to me there were times when I had to deal with things myself and I grew more mature because of it.

I am not dependent on my parents and this is going to help me in later life. My six months in France has allowed me to experience so many things that a lot of other nine year olds wouldn’t have been able to see. I feel that a whole new world opened up before me and now I have the confidence to visit other countries and experience more new things.

Incidentally, Valentin has just passed the equivalent of A-level in France – and he is going to study English at a higher level.

The Mum’s Viewpoint

The night before we set off for France, I tucked Thomas up in bed and as I kissed him goodnight, he blurted out; “I don’t want to go anymore” so I reassured him that he didn’t have to and we would cancel it. I lay in bed writing a mental list of who I must phone only to be greeted by Thomas next morning saying; ” I can’t wait to go to France”!

It was strange without him and we did miss him desperately. We phoned once a week which was nice. When he broke his leg I couldn’t stop crying, I just wanted to be there for him.

Going over to collect him was a wonderful and exciting but it did take us a few days to get used to each other again! We were very lucky with Valentin when he came to England. He settled in very quickly and became popular at school. He was an exceptional football player and was soon the star of the local team.

Thomas and Valentin have been to stay with each other several times since.

We gave our daughter the chance to do an exchange as well – but she wasn’t keen. It very much depends on the child’s make-up.

We still keep in touch with Valentin’s family and met up with them in France this summer. It has been an enriching experience for all of the family.

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