Defining Global Britain in the 2020s? It is already here. In praise of the British Council

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”

There are a few well worn phrases, overused in education that exist in all staff workrooms & faculty lounges around the world such as “don’t smile until Christmas” or “when is the vacation?”.  Perhaps the most overused one is “let’s not reinvent the wheel” especially when educators are at the whim of capricious policy makers looking to make their mark in the short term and in the case of England this summer, there were actually 3 secretary of states for education appointed in as many days. 

Part of the debate in post Brexit and now the post Johnson UK in 2022 (at least we think and not until 5th September but a lot could happen between now and then) is about the role Britain should play in the World. As far as education is concerned, it is one of the public policy areas along with educational organisations such as COBIS, Cambridge Assessment, UK Universities & higher education, that the rest of the globe still looks to with some admiration because of the positive impact made internationally here.  It is also something for the UK to be proud of, not least because of the very valuable and ongoing contributions these all make to furthering international education, curriculum, qualifications and supporting networks of  teachers/school leaders, developing students around the world.   

The UK is still trying to shake off Dean Acherson’s well worn comment made just before the Beatles became globally famous in 1962, about Britain losing an empire and yet to find a role. There are certainly a number of post war Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers who have all spoken at some point about Britain “punching above its weight” on the world stage, making a positive impact.  Sir Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday celebrations and Pyramid Stage set in Glastonbury this year shows the impact and the affection the World still has for Britain’s phenomenal arts and creativity sectors as well as the longevity of British musical  icons  in the Glastonbury Festival and in Macca himself. 

“Global Britain” isn’t just post Brexit marketing spin and the positive reactions, and smiles, to that famous Peruvian immigrant and another famous UK icon Paddington Bear, having tea with a very royal icon, Queen Elizabeth II, in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June, demonstrated the affection and yearning for a side of Britain still admired and wanted in the World.  As long as he doesn’t end up on a plane to Rwanda. 

We certainly don’t need to reinvent the wheel either where “Global Britain” is concerned when it comes to international education. Along with the BBC World Service, the British Council is one of the most well known and well respected of all UK institutions that not only flies the flag for Britain culturally and educationally but is one of the most admired British organisations globally and seen as the model for the projection of so-called “soft power” around the world. 

It is also part of the answer to Dean Acherson’s question from 1962. America House, The Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, Dante Alighieri Society, Confucius Institute, Cervantes Institute, all follow or have adapted the British Council model from an organisation first set up in 1934 and now with nearly 9 decades experience of connecting classrooms and cultures around the world. 

I will declare an interest at this point.  I have had the enormous honour and privilege of working with the British Council, with remarkable & dedicated British Council people, for nearly 20 years in international education. The British Council is not always perfect, with over 100 offices globally, and within its one billion GBP budget, there is a very business oriented commercial aspect in English language courses and qualifications.  It has diversified into MOOCs with Future Learn and its CPD through the Education Exchange webinars is another facet of its adaptability. 

Its wide ranging and long standing established work with schools all across the UK and abroad suffered a heavy blow when the UK pulled out of Erasmus  and the schools based Etwinning networks in December 2020.  This was compounded by the government in 2021 not re-awarding its Turing scheme replacement to the British Council to oversee. A recent Daily Mail article accused it of the neo-right 2020s sin of “wokeism” as an organisation over its liberal, humanitarian and global values and a recent industrial dispute over restructuring has also had a damaging impact on this global educational giant. 

I have walked past a sign at the British Council’s now former HQ at Spring Gardens, just off Trafalgar Square, many times over the years. It states; “Connecting the UK to the World. Changing lives through education”. I have lived this and seen it so many times over with students and colleagues from my own schools and those I have the privilege to work with around the globe as a British Council Schools’ Ambassador. We have shared ideas, projects, created unique collaborations, created friendships and partnerships, that have made ordinary schools into something extraordinary.  

As recently as just over a decade ago, education was celebrated with the brilliant International School Award (ISA), classrooms were connected from Bristol to Bandung with Connecting Classrooms projects, Comenius awards, Erasmus programmes, TIPD, Asian Dialogues, European Language assistants, Arabic and Chinese language programmes and Anglo-Russian partnerships. We spoke to the ISS in orbit and for a brief while the PM’s Global Fellowship scheme created remarkable young people each giving something back to communities in the UK and abroad.  I will never forget playing cricket with young people from Bristol and Tomsk in a summer camp in Siberia in the summer of 2007 and wish to the universe we could get back to a global narrative of peace, collaboration & hope for the sake of a hopeful future for all children.

The former English Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, once famously said that meaningful education had to have global learning as an integral part of the curriculum. It would be a move in the right direction to return to that approach especially with a broader holistic curriculum, through programmes like Erasmus, working constructively with our near neighbours and putting more energy in getting our young people actively involved in their communities on a much wider level.  Teachers & school leaders need to talk, share and learn from their counterparts across the world and not just to the ones in the same MAT chain or down the road. 

Not everything we do in school needs a qualification at the end of it and so many programmes and opportunities that organisations like the British Council used to bring school communities and their local communities have now gone to the detriment of the societal cohesion that holds us all together.  And we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We see the great work from organisations such as Global School Alliance supporting schools again  but more needs to be done. 

In July, the annual British Council “Language Trends England 2022” report was published. The drop in language learning in primary schools as well as a lack of international education in schools was not a surprise to anyone who knows how little serious emphasis the Department for Education has placed on languages and international education, despite the rhetoric. It was still a shock to read in such simple terms and a stark reality for our students. This is what happens when an education policy approach for over a decade gets obsessed with structures, narrowing the curriculum and high stakes accountability in schools with politicised players like Ofsted failing the system. I sat and gave evidence to the APPG in Parliament in 2019, along with others, predicting exactly this.

The pendulum will start to swing back though and like countries less obsessed with a bizarre mangled view of history through the lens of “this Island story”, England will get back to developing opportunities in the curriculum and schools for global citizens as it used to through brilliant organisations like the British Council. Actually preparing young people for the challenges of the future. Global Britain will actually come to mean something again and be respected. And learning a new language or culture won’t get labelled cheaply and lazily under that nasty, silly word “woke” either.

It’s not Panglossian to want a future where our young people are secure about who they are in the World, having faith in politics and politicians, aware and embracing of the diversity that exists everywhere and can link the two through the cohesion of their national and global citizenship. We need to get back to finding the good and what unites us and not divides us. We need to recognise and have faith in the organisations that we have, that work, and get education off the zero sum political treadmill it is on right now. Now that really would help positively signpost the rest of the 2020s for young people across the globe which really does build hope and prepare them for the future as confident national and global citizens. 

Rob Ford


  1. British Council Schools: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools
  2. Education Exchange Digital Events: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools/education-exchange-digital-events
  3. Global School Alliance: https://www.globalschoolalliance.com/
  4. The Turing Scheme: https://www.turing-scheme.org.uk/
  5. Etwinning: https://www.etwinning.net/en/pub/index.htm
  6. Future Learn and the British Council: https://www.futurelearn.com/partners/british-council
  7. Erasmus: https://erasmus-plus.ec.europa.eu/
  8. British Council Language Trends England 2022 https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/research-reports/language-trends-2022

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