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British Council: English Schools Abroad

Volume 755: debated on Monday 7 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance they have given to the British Council in respect of its staff serving on the governing bodies of English schools abroad; and why British embassies can no longer support schools and other bodies.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so declare an interest as chairman of the English College in Prague.

My Lords, the Government have not provided guidance to the British Council regarding staff serving on governing bodies of English schools abroad. The FCO has not instructed its posts to cease support for schools or other bodies. British embassies’ association with local schools will have a historical basis dating from a time when it may not have been possible to open local English-language or British-style schools without such links.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and I am delighted with her response that there is no conflict of interest with English schools abroad. I will relay her Answer to the governing body. I fully understand the Government’s policy of saving taxpayers’ money. Can she reassure the House that the new government policy for only commercial entertainment will not be extended to British schools abroad, when more than a third of our 1,000 students attend British universities?

I can confirm to my noble friend that specific guidance was issued by the British Council. I will send her a copy of that guidance, which clearly shows the British Council acted on its own legal advisers’ advice, rather than on any advice of the Government. On British embassies and high commissions abroad serving their communities, I assure my noble friend that a whole host of events are held at high commissions and embassies, many of them with civil society organisations, NGOs and communities. They certainly are not all commercially based.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that in this month last year her right honourable friend Hugo Swire announced a triennial review of the work of the British Council—admirable work, which it conducts all over the world. Can she tell us where that review now stands?

The noble Lord is right: there is currently a triennial review. It is part of the wider review of non-departmental public bodies. The work of the review started in August or September last year and is still ongoing. Recommendations have been submitted to the Foreign Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary. In due course there will be a report.

My Lords, due to the drop in the number of students from overseas coming to this country, many British universities are now setting up campuses abroad. Does the Minister agree that it would be wise to instruct the British Council and the British embassies to ensure that those universities are assisted in their presence so that more people can benefit from attending not only English schools, but the other universities that are there as well?

I can assure my noble friend that overseas students are a key priority for the Government. Indeed, more than 6,000 British overseas schools provide the first cohort of overseas students. That is why we have a relationship with them. Indeed, many of our ambassadors and deputy ambassadors sit on the boards of many of these schools. The British Council does a tremendous amount of work promoting English and education. That is sometimes the first experience people overseas have of the educational opportunities available in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm further the excellent work that is done by the British Council in the field of education where British Council centres exist? Since the Foreign Office has done such wonderful work in reopening embassies in many parts of the world, will it consider reopening British Council centres that have been closed down in various parts of the world?

I support my noble friend’s comments. The British Council is a global brand. It hugely strengthens the reputation of the United Kingdom and connects with people about the United Kingdom. It builds trust and awareness on a whole series of issues. I can tell my noble friend that the decision on the overall strategy direction and management of the British Council is taken by the council’s executive board of trustees, and this would be a decision that it would take. Of course, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to support the British Council’s grant in aid, which for this year has been set at £153.5 million.