We live in a world where political and economic turmoil seems to have become the norm.
Across America, Europe and here in the Middle East, change seems to be constant, unpredictable and sometimes disturbing.
But away from the headlines big changes are also happening, quietly and steadily, in the economies and societies where young people will soon take on the responsibilities of adulthood.
In Egypt, as in all other countries, this coming generation faces huge employment challenges in the form of globalisation. The fast-growing young populations of the Middle East and North Africa will compete against Cloud-connected international talent for investment and jobs.
Across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), there is concern about the current skill levels of school leavers and college graduates. A new British Council report has surveyed more than 500 business leaders in Dubai, the most popular base in the region for multi-national companies.
Their message was almost unanimous. Young people leaving education need a portfolio of soft skills to carry from one job to the next – problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, the ability to work with others and a commitment to lifelong learning. Communication, especially fluency in English, is essential for success.
At the British Council in Egypt, working with our colleagues from HSBC, we are running a project in schools aimed at developing precisely those core life and employment skills.
Taqaddam, which means “moving forward” in Arabic, has been devised by HSBC and the British Council. It focuses not on academic work but on developing qualities such as team building, emotional intelligence and leadership, all necessary whatever the shape of the future workplace.
Taqaddam’s research shows that positive character strengths can be learned, practised and cultivated. Students from 15-17 come to understand their strengths and weaknesses, within a safe and supportive environment.
The programme develops confidence, commitment, determination, organisation skills and self-belief. It runs in several MENA countries, in collaboration with national education ministries.
In Egypt this is the third year of operation and so far we’ve reached 900 pupils in 23 schools – either National Institute or international schools. The first programmes ran in Cairo and Giza, and in 2017 were extended to National Institute schools in Alexandria, involving 200 students.
Taqaddam is delivered in English as an extra-curricular activity, involving workshops and 12 weekly classes. Its online, gaming-style format appeals to teenagers, who face a series of tasks to be completed by a deadline.
It encourages year 10 and 11 pupils to develop five important personality traits – Spark, Purpose, Confidence, Mettle and Positive Emotions.
Spark means being inspired and passionate about a subject or activity. Purpose is a belief that life is meaningful and worthwhile. Confidence is understanding and believing in ourselves. Mettle is resilience and determination, especially when facing challenges. Positive Emotions encourage self-reflection, understanding and managing our feelings.
The course is designed in partnership with the Goodall Foundation, a British educational charity focused on developing character through self-sufficiency, innovation and collaboration.
Taqaddam’s support from HSBC isn’t just financial. The bank encourages its staff to offer unpaid help throughout the project, sharing practical workplace experience.
School teachers also volunteer to teach Taqaddam in their own time and we are enormously grateful to the 29 teachers in Egyptian schools who have supported these young people.
One of them, Sarah Ismail, said how rewarding it was to see her students changing, developing new skills and working together – in her words - beautifully. She changed too, becoming more confident and positive.
Every year Taqaddam ends with the Make It Happen Day, a festival of creativity and co-operation.
This year we saw 265 students coming together to display their ideas for social action and change in their own communities.
The winners came from Cairo’s Gezira Language School. They invented a carbon monoxide alarm that sounds when it senses the deadly odourless gas, which claims unwitting victims every year. It’s not just an all-Egyptian idea, but it’s well-priced at only LE 250.
Other winners were the Book Bike, a touring mini-library bringing literature to the 80% of the Egyptian population that doesn’t read, and Aquaphonics, a scientific project tor turning fish waste into organic fertilizer.
Make It Happen is highly competitive but in many ways that’s not what’s important. What does matter is that students who a few weeks ago were nervous before an audience, lacking organisational and self-analytical skills, are now questioning, confident, self-aware and well-qualified to work in a productive team.
That confidence gives them a good chance of a prize on Make It Happen Day. But it gives them an even better chance of moving smoothly into the workplace after school, developing a fulfilling and rewarding career and dealing with all of life’s challenges.
This year marks 80 years since the British Council began working in Egypt. It’s an anniversary we view with great pride and will be marking with events over the next 12 months.
But nothing makes us prouder than knowing that projects such as Taqaddam are bringing out the very best in fine young people from Egypt, equipping them to serve their country, their community and their fellow-citizens in the decades to come.
Gail Campbell, British Council Regional Director Education, MENA
*The British Council’s new report UAE Future Skills can be found here.