Find out about some significant events in the British Council's history.
Discussions in the 1920s and the early 1930s led to the setting up of a British Committee for Relations with Other Countries in 1934, renamed 'British Council' in 1935. Working at first through British Embassies and High Commissions, the British Council set up its first overseas operations in Egypt and Portugal in 1938. In the same year, the organisation took over the responsibility for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The Royal Charter was granted to the British Council in 1940.
The Second World War saw the forced withdrawal of work in most European countries. In other parts of the world, expansion of the British Council’s work was seen as an important part of the British War effort. At the request of the government, centres were set up across the country to provide educational and cultural support to refugees and allied service personnel. The first was the Polish Hearth in London, which opened in July 1940. After the war, these regional offices continued as support centres for students and visitors from other countries. With the end of the war, European operations were re-opened and expanded. However, annual reductions in government funding and lack of decision on the British Council’s long-term future led to the closure of operations in many countries in other parts of the world.
The early 1950s saw a continued reduction of the large overseas network that had been built up during the Second World War, as well as a decline in government funding. In the few countries where there was a complete withdrawal of British Council activity, however, this was mostly due to political rather than financial factors. So, the British Council had to pull out of Eastern Europe - with the notable exception of Poland - as well as from China and Persia. Later, the 1956 Suez Crisis in Egypt and political troubles in Cyprus disrupted British Council work in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus.
Within Europe, an important development in the mid-50s was the setting up of the Soviet Relations Committee to develop cultural relations between the UK and the Soviet Union.
There were regular government reviews during this period, looking at such questions as whether the government should continue to support the British Council and what its priorities should be in terms of activities and geographical focus. These reviews were known as the Drogheda, Hill, Vosper and Duncan Reports, named after the chairmen of the review committees. By the end of the 1950s, the Drogheda Report had led to an expansion of activity in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, and the Hill Report had led to a move away from the teaching of English by British teachers towards more support and training for local English teachers.
The setting up of the government's new Department for Technical Cooperation in 1961, responsible for British aid to developing countries, led to important changes for the British Council. Throughout the rest of the 1960s and up until the 1990s, the British Council took on an increasing share of responsibility for education programmes and student training schemes in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, and received a substantial proportion of its government funding from the new department.
The 1960s saw a renewed commitment to work in Western Europe, following the recommendations of the Vosper Review, which interpreted Britain's failure to join the European Common Market in 1963 partly as a result of the lack of attention paid to relationship-building with the people of those countries. These recommendations were reinforced by the Duncan Report of 1969.
In the mid to late 1960s, following a period of considerable growth, financial constraints and the political troubles in the Middle East, Nigeria and Vietnam forced the closure of some operations, but this period also saw further expansion in Asia and sub saharan Africa and renewed activity in Eastern Europe.
In 1965, the first English proficiency test for students coming to study in Britain was developed. The test is seen as the forerunner of IELTS (International English Language Testing System).
Following meetings between the French and British governments in 1970, so-called 'Heath-Pompidou money' was made available as extra funding for new programmes of youth exchanges, scholarships and civic links between the UK and France. This was followed by a more general increase in cultural and educational activity in Western and Southern Europe, with new science, arts and English language teaching programmes being set up.
The rapid development of the countries of the Gulf following the discovery of oil in the 1960s led to interest in the expansion of British Council programmes in those countries, and new operations were opened in Oman and Qatar, with expansion in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to the activity which could be funded from the British Council's own budget, discussions with the governments of these countries led to what became known as 'Paid Educational Services' - British Council educational services funded by the host government. The first project under the new arrangement was for support to the development of the English Language Centre at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The mid-1970s saw the start of renewed priority given to the direct teaching of English, particularly in Southern Europe and the Middle East. Over the next twenty years or so, new teaching centres were set up in countries across the world, and the income from teaching became an important means by which the British Council was able to maintain or increase its activity independent of the government grant.
In 1976, a review of all UK foreign policy, including the work of the British Council, was commissioned by the then Foreign Secretary (later Prime Minister) James Callaghan. The body commissioned to do this was the Central Policy Review Staff, popularly known as the 'Think Tank'. Its report, produced in 1977, caused a storm by recommending either the outright abolition of the British Council, or the closure of its entire overseas network.
Although the government decided not to follow the Think Tank's recommendations, the Berrill Report is remembered as the greatest threat to the British Council in its history.
The actual result of the Berrill Report was a sharp reduction in government funding up to the mid-1980s, leading to reduction in activity and closures of offices and libraries overseas. However, political events also caused the withdrawal of the British Council from Iran in 1979, Afghanistan in 1980, and from Argentina and Lebanon in 1982.
One of the major reductions in this period caused by the need to make financial savings was the closure of ten of the twenty-five regional offices in the UK and of the Overseas Students' Centre in Portland Place, London. The gap would be filled partly by collaboration with institutions such as International Students House in London, but mostly by universities and educational institutions increasingly taking on the responsibility for the welfare of their overseas students.
The continual reductions in the government grant were, however, compensated for by growth in other areas of British Council activity which attracted its own funding: project management funded by overseas governments, the UK government's Overseas Development Administration and multilateral development agencies, teaching of English to fee-paying students, and joint-funded events and programmes.
The 1980s ended with a spurt of growth caused by a long-awaited funding increase, and saw new or expanded offices and programmes in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China and the Caribbean.
The fall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s led to great demand for English language teaching and for training in areas such as management and law. The British Council responded by expanding its activity across the region, and by helping the UK government to develop its Know How Fund for Eastern Europe. The end of the Soviet Union saw a similar pattern further east, with new offices, projects and English teaching centres being set up in most countries of the former Soviet Union by 1995, and a big expansion in Russia itself.
Demand for English teaching continued to grow worldwide, with many new teaching centres set up in Western Europe, East and South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
From the mid-1990s onwards, internet-based and other electronic forms of communication became increasingly important, both as information resources and in developing new types of teaching and learning materials.
The British Council changed and grew over the 10 years from 2000 and played its part in some of the challenges and innovations of the 21st century.
We introduced new large scale programmes to engage more people in some of the newer world challenges of climate change, threats to understanding between cultures and the increasing pressures placed on societies through terrorism, immigration and globalisation. Some of these programmes include:
- Global English working with ministries, teachers and learners to provide systemic change, training and English learning content through hard-copy, digital and radio formats to all teachers and learners of English
- Connecting Classrooms which connects primary and secondary school teachers and children in the UK and overseas through collaborative project work to build school leadership and international understanding
- International Climate Champions and Challenge Europe which raise awareness of and engage communities in discussing the effects of climate change
- Our Shared Europe which raises awareness and celebrates the diversity and interconnectedness of our religious and cultural past, present and future
- MIPEX, a contract delivered on behalf of the European Commission, which uses an index to compare how well European countries are integrating migrant communities and creating greater public dialogue
- International Inspiration, Dreams and Teams and Premier Skills that use the medium of sport, education and language learning to improve awareness and build skills in managing diversity and inclusivity.
- High profile arts programmes including exhibitions of Turner in Russia and China and Antony Gormley and Henry Moore in China also and the first visit of a western rock band into Cuba – Manic Street Preachers. The Selector radio programme, introduced in 2001-02, brings new UK music to the masses and was broadcast weekly to an estimated international audience of 3 million people in 2009 in 34 countries.
Our full cost recovery (FCR) contracts activity was critical to our growth plans then as now. We worked with governments, donors, lenders and private sector clients to provide a range of services tailored to their needs including feasibility studies and needs analyses, and project design and management.
We maintained our reputation as a high quality provider with expertise in economic development, education management and reform, human rights and justice, public administration and reform, social development, and technical and vocational education and training. Examples of this expertise includes the DFID funded police training and development project in Sudan, the UNICEF funded releasing potential in schools in Iraq and the EC funded social security reform co-operation programme in China.
Our Teaching and Exams businesses have continued to satisfy the demand for English and access to tertiary study and immigration. We have maintained a global network of 75 teaching centres delivering over a million classroom hours. The number of students studying has risen from 125 thousand to 263 thousand. The proportion of young learner students has grown from 22% to over 45%. The number of exams candidates has also grown from just over 700 thousand to one and a half million.
We have responded to the rapid growth of digital and information technologies by:
- developing and expanding of our website presence and online communities that were visited by an estimated 86 million people in 2009,
- introducing Knowledge and Learning Centres into our traditional library services to provide access to information and learning opportunities,
- developing our own learning products especially in English that were visited by 26 million people in 2009
Our global physical presence remained strong with a physical presence in around 110 countries. While there have been some office openings and closings, we have maintained a presence in some of the most challenging operating environments including Zimbabwe, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. Our presence in the UK changed with closures of seven regional offices in England. We continue to maintain a split head office in London and Manchester and offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. On top of a physical presence we continue to be active and deliver programmes and services in some 30 countries where we do not have an office.
The decade also required us to respond to challenges in the UK. We have delivered on commitments made after the Lord Carter of Coles Public Diplomacy Review, recommending a more co-ordinated public diplomacy offer with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC World Service and the Gershon Efficiency Review that required us to deliver savings.
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