4 October 2021

British Council: building bridges worldwide

The British Council member blogs about the life enhancing language programmes delivered worldwide by the British Council and how they are now under threat.

I have worked for the British Council for 20 years in different roles and regions, starting as an English teacher in the former Soviet Union.

I remember we had queues of young people round the block for our English lessons as young people were eager to learn English so they could access the books, materials and connections which had been closed off to them for so long. One class, sponsored by the UK government was for former military officers. One of my students, an unemployed former nuclear submarine captain, told me how his experience at the British Council had opened a door on a new outlook on the world. We are still friends to this day and keep in touch. There is no doubt it was a life changing experience for him and was a great thing for the former cold war ‘enemy’ the UK to do.

Later my career took me to Iraq where the British Council delivered Shakespeare Lives, bringing the bard to new audiences and opening up opportunities for UK and Iraqi artists to co-create and collaborate in a way that few other organisations could. It will be hard for me to forget the delight of young Iraqi audiences when we brought over a UK theatre group to perform with local actors in one of the refugee camps.

More recently I heard from teachers from a school in Wales, in one of the most deprived districts of the UK (they had the highest percentage of pupils on free school meals), on an exchange visit to a rural school in Africa. The exchange was made possible by a grant from the British Council. They described the experience as ‘life enhancing’ and challenged all pre-conceptions, it gave them a renewed passion and dedication for education which they took back into the classroom with them.

These are only a few of the thousands of stories I have personally come across in my career so far with the British Council. For me this is what cultural relations is all about – those people to people connections, building bridges and challenging perceptions. In a post Brexit, pandemic world this is exactly what the UK needs, now more than ever. I worry that the UK will be irreversibly damaged by the plans to downsize operations, closing country offices, and replacing face to face interactions with online, and with the loss of hundreds of experienced, professional, and committed UK staff. Therefore I urge you to support the PCS campaign.