Seven decades of work on the educational field gave us a strong reputation
Gill Caldicott, the new Country Director of the British Council in Sri Lanka took up her post in August this year. With experience spanning over 22 years at the British Council, she has worked at numerous British Council offices across the globe, including London, Hong Kong, Egypt and India. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Gill speaks about Sri Lanka, English education and how the British Council stays relevant to younger audiences.
What are your thoughts on Sri Lanka? How different is it from the other countries you have been posted in?
I feel extremely privileged to have gotten this job here in Sri Lanka. It is considered to be one of the most popular postings, in a very beautiful country with lovely people. It was my first choice of job and I was very lucky to get it. So I am absolutely delighted to be here.
Prior to working here, I was in India based in Delhi. I have quite a lot of experience in South Asia which has made it easier for me to settle in here. Although there are lots of differences between India and Sri Lanka, I think Sri Lanka overall is a more conducive working environment. I am very struck by the regard with which the British Council is held in Sri Lanka. So the name ‘British Council’ opens lots of doors and allows me to have very meaningful conversations and that is extremely helpful.
I think the work we have done here for nearly 70 years has given us a really strong reputation particularly around the work we do in education, to enhance the learning of English and our Arts work as well. So it has been a very good experience so far.
What plans do you have for the British Council and how do you look forward to achieving those?
One of the big areas of work for us at the moment is to support the Ministry of Education with education reform. That is particularly around improving the quality of teaching in the classrooms. We call this area of work ‘transform’. We will be helping to train teachers, both teachers of English and also teachers of other subjects, to improve their quality of teaching in the classroom. That is a very important piece of work for us. In fact we were at the Ministry of Education where we presented an English Impact Research that we have been doing. This research will be released in December. It was conducted across a hundred-odd schools around the country and nearly 1,500 students were tested in English and also they answered a questionnaire about their motivation in English.
The headline result is students are very motivated to learn English. But there are some significant challenges in their learning and their ability to speak English. Their ability to speak English is not as good as some of their other skills in English. We will be working with the Ministry to help improve those levels of English. That’s one significant area of work for us.
Another area is around strengthening civil society, which we are doing in various ways. We have got programmes called ‘Active Citizens’ where we train young people through facilitators all over the country to become good, proactive citizens helping their communities. That may be helping young people to access Information Technology in very poor, rural areas or it might be helping women’s groups to know their rights and to play active parts in society. These areas are very important to us too.
We are therefore working to support the whole area of reconciliation between different groups in Sri Lanka. That will partly be around language, it will also be about using arts and creativity to foster better relations and to help mutual understanding.
“One of the big areas of work for us at the moment is to support the Ministry of Education with education reform. That is particularly around improving the quality of teaching in the classrooms. We call this area of work ‘transform”
Tell us about upcoming projects for the British Council…
We have a project that’s coming out very soon, which is focused on creativity and gender. Creativity is in the heart of all the work we do in the Arts. Gender and the importance of recognising women and their place in society, their achievements and challenges is one of the core principles on which we work. We’re always looking to strengthen our equality, diversity and inclusion programmes. This programme which we are going to be presenting early December is called ‘WoW’: Women of the World. It’s a programme that has been run by the Southbank Centre in London for a number of years. It is a celebration of women; their abilities, creativity and achievements. It’s also an opportunity to just make people more aware of some of the challenges that women face, whether it’s gender, violence against women or difficulty in breaking through the glass ceiling in terms of employment and careers.
On December 2 and 3, we will be presenting WoW Colombo at the National Film Corporation. It is going to be a massive free event which anybody can attend, regardless of whether you are a male or female. Children would be welcome with their parents. There will be a host of fun activities, talks by international guests, workshops for children and parents, there will be a film programme, sporting events, full of fun events such as rollerblading. There will also be classes for women such as self-defence for women for example. There will be musical and theatrical performances as well. We’re looking forward to presenting this programme.
Any challenges that you were anticipating in Sri Lanka?
I certainly was not warned of any challenges at all. When you come to a new country, you always have to learn the culture of that country. I am on a steep learning curve. I have to learn about the way people operate, their expectations, what it means when they say yes, does it mean that they are going to do something tomorrow or next week? Do we have to remind them? Likewise, every culture is different. I am on a learning curve with Sri Lanka and that I suppose is the challenge of every new job, just learning about the country. Sri Lanka has very open and friendly people who have been very welcoming.
English is no longer the only global language. Multilingualism is something that people across countries are embracing. How does the British Council approach this?
Our philosophy is that multilingualism is the default, preferred position. In fact if I go back to the research that we presented on the impact of English, what it showed was that the multilingual schools of which there are a few in Sri Lanka, those that teach in Sinhala, Tamil and English, with different streams, those schools were the best performing schools in English. The single language schools in contrast, like the Tamil schools or the Sinhala schools were the ones which were struggling the most. This finding is backed up by research all over the world that shows if you are exposed to more than one language as a child, then your capacity to learn languages improves. So our position is absolutely that we would like to see children particularly learning more than one language. It improves their ability to learn languages generally.
Our role of course is to support the teaching and learning of English and to improve the professionalism of the teaching and learning of English. We don’t pretend that we can support Sinhala or Tamil language learning. The richest societies are able to use several languages and access the cultures that belong to those languages. That is our position.
British Council opens doors and allows to have meaningful conversations
Offer help to train English teachers and others
‘English Impact Research’ will be released in December
The headline result is students are very motivated to learn English
Our philosophy is multilingualism is default, preferred position
Highest percentage of English usage in social media and the second is internet
Have you had time to learn about the Sri Lankan education system?
I have already been to three of four meetings with the Ministry of Education. They were all focused on education reforms. It is clear to me that teachers would benefit from a lot more support for their own professional development and we are hoping to help in this area. We would like to see standards of professionalism for teachers, altogether raised, to look at international benchmarking for teachers, so that they would feel that they too are playing on a world stage.
It has become clear to me that some rural areas are suffering because they don’t really want to necessarily go to work in the rural areas. That is a negative cycle in which children in poorer environments are going to therefore suffer in their education. So it’s a strong indicator that the Western and Southern provinces are doing better than some of the other provinces around the country. The Ministry is aware of this. How to redress that balance is a big challenge.
“The headline result is students are very motivated to learn English. But there are some significant challenges in their learning and their ability to speak English. Their ability to speak English is not as good as some of their other skills in English”
Earlier in Sri Lanka, the British Council was the place where English reading was promoted. As times change, how does the British Council stay relevant and how would you promote reading?
We have been running a project over the last three years across South Asia which we call the ‘Libraries Revolution Project’. The model for libraries has changed quite a lot, especially in the UK and Europe. In the UK, there are in general fewer books on the shelf but libraries have become community centres which promote lots of activity for children – the young and the adults. So they have changed their nature. On top of that they have digitised a lot of their books and documents.
In South Asia and Sri Lanka, specifically, we are doing the same thing. We are soon re-launching our digital library and it will be much more extensive than the current works. There will be specific databases for example for the press and media. Anyone who is a member of the library can access the Times, Economist, Nature or New Scientist. They can become members of the British Council Library and they can access things through the internet. That is our objective.
But we also know that apart from strengthening the digital sphere. But the trend is that, the more things have become available digitally, the more books that sell are very strong on the market. We are not getting rid of books by any means. What we are doing is making those books very relevant to the target audiences. What we’ve understood is that parents particularly care about their children and their learning opportunities and are coming to the British Council Library and joining in the story telling or joining in an activity which we call the ‘reading challenge’ or coming to a fun activity related to Harry Potter for example; all of those things actually support the educational development of children. Parents are more than keen to make sure their children learn.
The Ministry of Education is introducing a digital classroom concept. What is your opinion of this approach?
Going back to the research, one of the findings is that young people use English. The highest percentage of the use of English is for social media and the second was the internet. So that means young people across the country are already very plugged in to the digitised world. We know this. The finding was very specific to Sri Lanka. In other countries, young people consume social media very often in their own first language. The Sri Lankan situation is a very positive one.
The British Council has a range of digitised resources that we can offer to the Ministry. That includes fun language learning activities, lesson plans and curriculum resources that can be used by teachers. We have put these on different platforms in other countries, but the challenge here is making sure that the teachers themselves are comfortable in using digital resources in the classroom and that will take a while.
“Although there are lots of differences between India and Sri Lanka, I think Sri Lanka overall is a more conducive working environment. I am very struck by the regard with which the British Council is held in Sri Lanka. So the name ‘British Council’ opens lots of doors and allows me to have very meaningful conversations and that is extremely helpful”