Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

8  British Council

Work in 2005-06

113. As is customary, the British Council submitted a comprehensive written memorandum to our inquiry and this year provided us with an advance copy of its annual report for 2005-06, which we found particularly helpful. We took oral evidence from Sir David Green, the Director-General, Martin Davidson, Deputy Director-General, and Margaret Mayne, Director of Finance and Resources, British Council, in July.[147] In addition, over the year, the British Council submitted evidence to our inquiry on East Asia and supplied us with several country briefs which outlined its ongoing work in countries where we had shown a particular interest.[148] We are grateful for this assistance.

114. The British Council believes its work last year contributed to a range of overseas priorities as set out by the Government in its new foreign policy strategy document, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World. [149] Sir David Green told us that the strategic priorities where the British Council could make the biggest difference were, "making the world safer from global terrorism; preventing and resolving conflicts with a very strong international system; supporting the UK economy; and achieving climate change."[150]

115. The written submission to our inquiry gives an account of the programmes, priorities and initiatives undertaken by the British Council over the past year.[151] Some of the work and activities which it highlighted were:

  • the conclusion of the Connecting Futures programme which brought together young people from 44 countries, directly involving 30,000 participants and a further 350,000 participants through intermediaries;
  • the Dreams and Teams programme which was active in 30 countries and designed to develop leadership and volunteering skills of young people;
  • work with government ministries in Afghanistan providing teacher training for English and support for its higher education sector;
  • the InterAction leadership programme which provided transformation leadership skills in Africa to more than 1,400 leaders and engaged 40,000 wider change agents in areas such as English language capacity building;
  • the ZeroCarbonCity programme which included exhibitions, city debates, public talks, youth conferences, online discussions, and school events on climate change;
  • education road shows on climate change in India reaching 100,000 people;
  • the building of exchange and cooperation links between United Kingdom and Chinese schools;
  • the production of a media guide on British Muslims in collaboration with the Association of Muslim Social Scientists;
  • implementing 141 international developments contracts to a total value of £51 million in more than 40 different countries; and
  • work in a broad range of human rights, education and governance projects.

Annual report for 2005-06

116. The latest annual report has been structured around the British Council's 13 global regions, including one covering its work in the United Kingdom.[152] Each section gives case studies illustrating how the British Council has achieved impact in a region against one of the Council's five core corporate outputs. These narratives on activity are accompanied by regional performance, audience and income data. The income data are broken down by country, which we found to be of particular value. We would encourage the British Council to continue producing information in this fashion. Sir David told us that for the first time the annual report really tried to be as transparent as possible in terms of showing success or indeed instances where the British Council had not done as well as it might.[153] We would suggest that the British Council continues to take this approach with next year's report.

117. Following its last annual report, we recommended that the British Council should present performance results in a format that would clearly demonstrate success or failure. This we are pleased it has done by means of a traffic-light system, similar to those used by other government departments and agencies, where red indicates failure, amber a target being partially met, and green a target being achieved. We are also pleased that the scorecard system which the British Council uses to mark its performance outputs has been simplified. It now uses an index on a 0-100 basis which makes its results easier to interpret. It is apparent that a real effort has been made this year to explain the methodologies and mechanisms the British Council uses for measuring performance: this has been done throughout the report very clearly.

Measuring performance

118. The British Council says its operational work is designed to make an impact against one of five corporate outputs (which are given in the table overleaf).[154] These five outputs form the foundation stone of the Council's five-year strategy.[155] The Council's effectiveness against these outputs is measured by gathering data from its customers and clients through questionnaires. Their responses establish their views on various propositions about the United Kingdom and how these views have changed as result of participation with the British Council.
Internationalism: Relationships brokered by the British Council broaden the international view of young people.
Long-term relationships: An increase in the number of quality relationships between the UK and other countries.
Positive partnerships: The UK is increasingly recognised as a country of choice for partnering positive social change.
Self development: The UK is increasingly recognised as a country able to satisfy aspirations for self development.
Creative ideas: The UK is increasingly recognised for its creative ideas and achievements.

119. The annual report shows that the British Council met its Positive Partnerships target, partly met its Self-development target but missed its Long-term Relationships and Creative Ideas targets.[156] The internationalism category was new and so did not have an associated target for 2005-06. The British Council also has several other public service agreement targets. It missed its customer satisfaction target but exceeded its satisfaction target as marked by the heads of missions within the FCO. An area where the British Council has had significant success was in the numbers of people using its services. Its results show that last year 35.4 million people used its information resources, either through the internet or by visiting its offices, and 15.1 million were recorded as having participated in one of its programmes. However, its target for students and examination candidates attending its teaching centres was missed by a fairly narrow margin.[157]

120. When we questioned the British Council on its performance in 2005-06, the Director-General told us that he suspected that the British Council might have been "a bit overambitious in terms of setting the targets" given the degree of change the organisation experienced.[158] However, for 2006-07, the Council believes that its targets reflect "a more realistic view of the impact of change".[159] We will examine its performance against these next year. Commenting on its disappointing result in maintaining Long-term Relationships, the British Council admits that while it was successful in reaching new audiences it gave less attention to strengthening long-term relationships.[160]

121. Another factor which the British Council suggests affected its impact was the negative perceptions of the United Kingdom arising in some parts of the World from the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.[161] This rationale underlines the difficulty there is in measuring the British Council's work objectively and in distinguishing its impact from the more general swings in perceptions of the United Kingdom. Martin Davidson told us, what is important is the specific question that the British Council asks survey respondents when measuring performance, which is: "has your involvement with the British Council changed your perception?"[162] Nonetheless, Dickie Stagg of the FCO questioned the true value of the results obtained from the survey-based system used by the Council. He remarked:

    How effective it is as a tool is a very fair question to ask in that if you are brought to the UK on a visit you probably should have a fairly positive view of the place. It may not necessarily be so much to do with the particular way in which your visit was organised or by whom.[163]

As we have noted above, an independent consultant is reviewing the way in which the British Council currently measures the impact and value of its work.

122. We recommend that in response to this Report the FCO provide a full assessment of the British Council's performance in measuring the impact and value of its work and that it outline what, if any, improvements are necessary to the way the Council's performance is assessed.

Efficiency, effectiveness and value for money

123. The grant-in-aid provided to the British Council last year amounted to £184 million and represented approximately one-third of its turnover of £512 million. The Director-General told us that every pound the British Council received in grant-in-aid it turned into £2.74.[164] Nonetheless, he could not foresee a time when the British Council would become self-financing.[165] Sir David was keen to emphasise to us that the teaching of English through the Council's language schools and the examinations it promotes on behalf of examination boards were in no way subsidised by grant-in-aid.[166]

124. In the 2004 spending review, the British Council was asked to make efficiency savings of £5 million in 2005-06. We are pleased that this target was exceeded, albeit by a narrow margin. The Council says that when savings of a further £2.1 million on revenue earning activity are included, the total saving achieved last year was £7.2 million.[167] It is to be commended for the progress made so far in fulfilling its spending review commitments. The Council told us that for 2006-07 it will implement "radical proposals for effective, leaner structures" in order to deliver further efficiency gains.[168] In June, the Council informed us that it would be closing several of its regional offices in view of the significant fall in the numbers of government-funded overseas scholars coming to the United Kingdom needing its support.[169]

125. When Sir Michael Jay appeared before us we asked him what he considered the British Council's purpose to be. Sir Michael thought that the Council did "an extraordinarily good job in most of the world in presenting aspects of Britain and British society in ways which embassies quite often cannot."[170] He went on to say that it carried out "a good function" which was "a legitimate function for the British taxpayer to fund."

On the same question, Sir David Green replied:

    [The British Council's] purpose is to win friends for the UK and to win friends who are going to be friends for the long term. Traditional diplomacy is no longer sufficient in the world in which we live and public diplomacy is therefore a very important tool in order to build a constituency of support for the UK, and I believe vital to our long-term prosperity and security. What the British Council does is to build friendships and long-term relationships with people who are going to be in positions of authority and influence in the future…"[171]

126. Earlier this year, we recommended that the FCO commission an independent review of the British Council's work to examine "what the Council does, why it is doing it, what it should be doing, and whether any of its activity would be better conducted in other ways or by different organisations".[172] However, in its response to us, the Government did not judge that it was the right time for such a review to take place but said that it would undertake to look at our recommendation again in due course.[173]

127. We also recommended that the National Audit Office urgently consider a value for money examination of the British Council.[174] We were pleased to receive a positive response to our recommendation.[175] On the timing of the review, Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, wrote in July to inform us that he intended to start his examination of the British Council in the first half of 2007 in order to allow any changes resulting from the external review of public diplomacy measurement to work through.[176] We agree that this seems a sensible timetable.

Representation overseas

128. In 2005-06, the British Council operated from 238 towns and cities in 110 countries worldwide and taught 1.1 million class hours of English to over 325,000 students in 53 countries. This teaching work earned the Council an income of £81 million.[177] The Council also invigilated 1.3 million UK examinations to over 925,000 candidates overseas.[178] During our inquiry into public diplomacy, the British Council told us that it used the surpluses it raised from its revenue-earning operations to fund the teaching of English in countries where there were more difficult operating environments.[179] It pointed out that few private sector schools would undertake teaching in challenging environments where there were "severely limited business prospects and serious security risks."[180] However, in its Corporate Plan for 2006-08, the Council states that it intends to introduce a new business model which will see a small number of teaching centres, which cannot be brought to break-even, close.[181] During evidence, Sir David told us that there was a handful of teaching centres which make a significant loss, and where the public diplomacy benefit was not that considerable, and therefore the Council proposed to close such centres.[182] We subsequently learnt that the Council is considering the closure of its teaching centres in Kosice, Varna, Chittagong, [183] Istanbul and Tel Aviv.[184]

129. To take just the case of the British Council's presence in Istanbul, we fail to understand how this city can be deemed of low significance in terms of public diplomacy and the Government's wider strategic goals given Turkey's relevance to several of these objectives and its geopolitical importance. We recommend that in its response to this Report the FCO explain the basis for the proposed closures of the British Council's teaching centres in Kosice, Varna, Chittagong, Istanbul and Tel Aviv, whether it has approved each closure, and what assessment it has made of the effects of the British Council's withdrawal from these cities in terms of the benefit that language teaching brings to the overall public diplomacy effort.

Board of trustees

130. In April, to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest arising from the position of the Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS) acting as the principal accounting officer of the British Council and his membership of the Council's board, we recommended that the FCO should be represented on the Council's board by another member of the FCO's board of management.[185] In its response to us, the Government said it was reviewing this position "as part of discussions aimed at refreshing and strengthening co-operation with and oversight of the British Council".[186] However, more recently the FCO informed us that the PUS would no longer sit on the British Council board but instead there would be enhanced co-ordination and oversight at a senior official level and directly by FCO Ministers.[187] Sir Michael told us:

    My own view, which I expressed at the last meeting of the [British Council] Board, is that it does cause a degree of confusion in the Board to have a representative of the sponsoring department, as it were, present, and it is better to have the relationship between the FCO and the British Council through a separate series of relationships at ministerial and senior official level, including the question of ensuring that we are getting value for money from the money we are putting into it, and for the Board of Trustees to be looking at the overall management of the British Council, at its relationship with the FCO and other stakeholders… That is the direction in which I think we are going.[188]

We welcome this step.

147   Ev 63-71 Back

148   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, East Asia, HC 860-II, Ev 306-11  Back

149   Active Diplomacy for a Changing World, FCO, March 2006, Cm 6762, available at  Back

150   Ev 59 and Q 175 Back

151   Ev 59-63 Back

152   Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring Success, British Council, July 2006, available at Back

153   Q 165 Back

154   Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring Success, British Council, July 2006, p 2 Back

155   Making a world of difference, British Council, 2006, available at: Back

156   Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring Success, British Council, July 2006, p 68 Back

157   Ibid, p 69-70 Back

158   Q 185 Back

159   Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring Success, British Council, July 2006, p 67 Back

160   Ibid  Back

161   Ibid Back

162   Q 187 Back

163   Q 98 Back

164   Q 199 Back

165   Q 198 Back

166   Q 199 Back

167   Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring Success, British Council, July 2006 Back

168   Ev 58 Back

169   Ev 58 Back

170   Q 101 Back

171   Q 165 Back

172   HC (2005-06) 903, para 72 Back

173   Cm 6840, p 7 Back

174   HC (2005-06) 903, para 83 Back

175   Cm 6840, p 9, para 19 Back

176   Ev 74 Back

177   British Council Annual Report 2005-06: Measuring success, page 8 Back

178   Ibid Back

179   HC (2005-06) 903, Ev 44 Back

180   Ibid Back

181   British Council Corporate Plan for 2006-08, p 15, available Back

182   Q 200 Back

183   Kosice (Slovakia), Varna (Bulgaria) and Chittagong (Bangladesh)  Back

184   Ev 72 Back

185   HC (2005-06) 903, para 38 Back

186   Cm 6840, p 5 Back

187   Ev 40 Back

188   Q 101 Back

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Prepared 8 November 2006