On her first overseas tour since her appointment in August 2019, Stevie Spring, new chair of the British Council (BC), visited Cairo for two days and visited projects supported by BC programmes.
Spring recently joined the BC to manage the cultural and educational affairs of this non-profit and non-political organisation that works in over 100 countries. She spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the different programmes supported by the council and how she sees attempts at reforming education in Egypt.
How is the British Council’s Developing Inclusive and Creative Economies (DICE) Programme being implemented in Egypt?
The British Council’s DICE Programme, worth LE30 million, was launched in March 2018 to support the development of creative and social enterprises in Egypt. The project aims to bring government, academia, civil society, and businesses to work on developing creative ventures, to help mitigate poverty, inequality and joblessness for young people, promote women’s empowerment, and support marginalised groups.
The programme is driven by the observance of two interconnected movements around the world, which are creativity and purpose-driven businesses. As per the UN, creative and cultural goods and services is one of the fastest-growing sectors around the world. By partnering with institutions that can make a difference, the programme fosters inclusive and creative economies through varied well-designed activities that include technical training, capacity-building workshops, startup competitions, knowledge-transfer camps, exhibitions, advocacy campaigns, and project incubation and accelerators.
Since its launch in 2018, nine prominent organisations have been supported by the DICE programme to implement 11 promising projects on the ground in 14 governorates in Egypt from the Delta to Upper Egypt. A total of 1,400 individuals and 160 social and 80 creative enterprises will receive direct training opportunities and another 1,000 indirect services will be delivered to creative communities and target groups. Some of these organisations are focused on women. For example, one of the projects is delivering social and create entrepreneurship training to 600 girls aged 16-24 from all 27 governorates.
The programme has secured partnerships with various ministries and institutions in Egypt. For example, the partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry represented by the Industrial Modernisation Centre — Creative Egypt Programme will drive capacity-building for local artisans to help them expand in local markets or access export opportunities. With the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology the programme specifically supports the launch of the National Academy for Disabilities Technologies, which aims to provide job opportunities for people with special needs through creative enterprises. The partnership will also provide know-how to establish a creative hub for assistive technologies and train a team that will move on to developing an incubator programme.
The partnership with the Ministry of Social Solidarity is supporting the implementation of a Disability Innovation Challenges Initiative. The goal is to initiate two models of integrating people with disabilities (PwDs) in the creative economy and facilitate the creation of 40 new jobs for PwDs — as a start — in the creative economy by December 2020. With the Export Development Authority and Chamber of Handicrafts the Programme will support the Egypt EXPO Hub with know-how and technical experience of incubation for young potential exporters. It will also provide know-how on the different management roles needed to establish a creative hub.
What is the idea behind the Science Café Programme?
The Science Café was revived in Egypt this year to drive enthusiasm for science and its importance in shaping the world around us. We previously held it in 2009.
Our first café this year was organised with the Academy for Scientific Research and Technology, where we hosted 100 children from the Children’s University to teach them about various sites in Egypt and how people lived in the millennia before the Pharaohs. The café focused on cultural heritage. It was well received, the children were highly engaged, and we are looking forward to continuing these cultural and scientific exchange events, especially when we have prominent speakers from abroad who can add value to the conversation run by Egyptian scientists and scholars.
The reason why we are working through the Science Café on cultural heritage is because archaeological and paleontological artifacts are limited and irreplaceable, so their protection is critical. One of the basic reasons for the damage of heritage is owed to a lack of awareness in the community in general and the non-involvement of people in the process of conservation. Sites have economic, social, and spiritual considerations, feeding communities’ understanding of identity and sometimes providing job opportunities. They connect people to place and time, providing the opportunity for increased knowledge and understanding of ourselves and one another.
We also held a second café about wastewater treatment in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Authority.
What programmes does the British Council run in support of research and development?
Through our Newton-Mosharafa Programme, funded through the largest bilateral science agreement in Egypt worth £50 million and split equally between the British and Egyptian governments, the British Council has managed since the fund was established in 2014 to support 172 scientists from Egypt to carry out their PhDs in the UK and over 30 research programmes in the fields of science and technology. Almost half of the beneficiaries of the Newton-Mosharafa Programme have been women. The fund is financed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
We’ve also supported several joint research projects that aim to support Egypt on achieving its Sustainable Development Goals. Topics range from wastewater management, in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Authority, to renewable energy production, to inventing bio-degradable plastic from shrimp shells. Through the PhDs, we’ve supported an early detection method for the Hepatitis C virus, which is improving the quality of life for millions, given that the disease affects 14 per cent of Egypt’s population.
An important cultural heritage programme by the Science Programme has created collaboration between the universities of Nottingham, Ain Shams, and Alexandria and focused on the preservation of Egyptian maritime archaeological sites through 3D digital modelling and virtual reality presentation in Alexandria, which have allowed a large number of scientists and students from a variety of disciplines to be involved in innovative scientific exploration. The programme promises to lead to more discoveries underwater.
Egypt has great potential in R&D, hinging on its bright scholars with a strong higher education background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Egypt ranked second in the growth rate of scientific research publications in 2018, according to a report by the research group Clarivate Analytics. Some analysts have attributed this rise to the Arab Spring, which stirred the water in Egypt and led to growing international cooperation in the field, such as the Newton-Mosharafa Programme, and increased budgetary allocations for R&D. For example, the scientific research budget in Egypt rose from 0.43 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 0.68 per cent in 2013.
What is the Active Citizens Programme, and how do you involve people who need such services but who may not have access to the British Council?
Since 2009, the Active Citizens Programme has educated young Egyptians on values such as diversity and respect for marginalised groups in society, teaching them skills such as leadership and marketing. It educates young Egyptians on how to develop sustainable projects that serve their communities and exposes them to best practices from regional countries. It educates them on sustainability and how to serve their communities. Since 2009, it has delivered 2,400 active members. Some active members have moved on and created their own NGOs.
Young people apply to our programme through a specific process, and we aim to reach people in remote areas, like our participants from Ezbet Khairallah in Cairo, or the work we do with the non-profit Fadilia NGO in Kitkat, also in Cairo. The idea is to get people from different communities to connect and learn how they can serve each other and change things for the better.
The programme tackles social problems that specifically affect marginalised communities such as low-income families, abused women, and disadvantaged or disabled children. For example, in Ezbet Khairallah we’re working with disadvantaged women to create job opportunities for them as well as help them overcome adversities through the art of storytelling, which has had an enormous positive impact on their mental health and quality of life. Fadilia is helping the community get connected with learning and health opportunities for people in the neighbourhood.
We believe in the value of inclusion, and we want to ensure that all Egyptians, and not just the privileged or gifted, acquire the knowledge and skills they need to become active citizens.
What are the activities of the Cultural Protection Fund?
The Cultural Protection Fund is a £30 million fund that supports efforts to keep cultural-heritage sites and objects safe, as well as the recording, conservation and restoration of cultural heritage. The Fund supports projects to protect heritage at risk in 12 target countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen.
It also provides opportunities to local communities for training and education, enabling and empowering them in the long-term to value, care for and benefit from their cultural heritage.
Our Culture Protection Fund awarded around £327,000 to the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) to rescue the Mameluke minbars [pulpits] of Cairo. The project focused on the research, documentation and conservation of the Mameluke minbars in Historic Cairo and was delivered in partnership with the Historic Cairo Project (HCP), the School of Islamic and Geometric Design (SIGD), and Egyptian-European Organisation for Training and Development (EEOTD).
How is the British Council supporting educational reform in Egypt?
Our work seeks systemic improvement and transformational change in English-language education policy and practice. We do this through building capacity in structures for professional development and working with the senior educational leadership to ensure that good policy reflects in good practice. Our work in the National Teaching Training Programme (NTTP), which was launched last year with the purpose of educating 30,000 teachers by the beginning of 2020, is raising English levels and teaching quality. Our thought leadership work, including our International Language Assessment Conference in Egypt (ILACE), is the country’s only conference designated to exploring educational assessment.
We support educational reform in Egypt through the training of government school teachers and school leaders. This is part of the Connecting Classrooms Programme. This training aims to further embed the 21st-century teaching that is currently being embedded into the government’s Education 2.0 reforms. This covers teaching students how to think critically, how to problem-solve, and how to think of the impact of their learning over the larger environment around them. It targets teachers at all stages and ensures maximum benefit using translated material and qualified accredited trainers to directly train teachers and school leaders.
Connecting Classrooms has been running for more than 10 years, and it has reached more than 11 governorates in Egypt.
What is your opinion of the current reform efforts in education and the use of technology?
The current educational reforms are making a positive change in all areas: curriculum, assessment, and teaching and learning. The British Council is supporting particularly the area of teaching and learning. Our programmes are improving the methodologies of teachers, as well as their soft skills, based on engagement with behavioural frameworks and participation in communities of practice.
Technology definitely enhances the relationship between teachers and students, especially if a teacher has the proper tools. Having these helps teachers to teach effectively. In the Connecting Classrooms Programme, we have a module on digital learning and have used it to train a couple of cohorts in Upper Egypt and seen how a traditional teacher can become innovative and creative in her/his classroom as a result, directly maximising benefits for student outcomes. The current minister of education is very keen on the effective use of technology because of the richness of the content that can be used.
What can Egypt do to bridge the gap between education and the needs of the job market?
We are working with the government to help teachers and students develop skills to equip them for the 21st-century world. The speed at which the world of work is evolving knows no precedent. English is the most in-demand language around the world. With more companies striving to export their products and services and join the global market, English is an important tool to achieve this goal. This is why English speakers have a better chance of getting the jobs they want and earning the salaries they wish for. The British Council is recognised as a world leader in English teaching, and it has commissioned a leading publication to study the role of English in employability that shows the critical value of English skills for the job market (https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/pub_en-the_relationship_between_english_employability_in_mena_research.pdf).
Egyptians often use foreign education to escape from the national system. What is your opinion of that, especially since a lot of students now take the British IGCSE?
UK qualifications have been delivered in Egypt for almost 30 years, and we are proud of their global recognition since they are widely respected and accepted by an extended range of higher-education systems worldwide. UK qualifications offer a very strong teaching and learning support system to educators and learners, which makes them favourable to many. It is also important to mention that British assessments are fair, reliable, practical and secure.
How can the quality of education be improved in Egypt?
A strong alignment between the curriculum, assessment, and teaching and learning is part of the answer. Autonomous, but accountable, teaching professionals and schools that have a say in what they do in the classroom, but are working within a clear framework to clear standards, are also important. Setting up quality assurance bodies, both internal and external, that ensure standards are developed, monitored, and met, is also a must. And balancing the teaching of knowledge with the development of skills is another important aspect. In addition, a strong, and empowered, leadership for learning on the school, governorate and central levels is needed, alongside student engagement.
We are working in partnership with the Ministry of Education and government schools on the International School Award. This award recognises schools with a notable global element in their curriculum by working with partner schools from all over the world. The scheme has been running in Egypt since 2009. This year, 44 schools have obtained the award.
How are your programmes relevant to local needs?
Our work is predominantly designed and delivered by Egyptians. We hire local experts in the field of development, teaching and other support functions. On a nationwide level, the needs we fill are communicated by our local partners, such as the Science and Technology Development Fund, the Ministry of Education, and the Federation of Egyptian Industries, and they are based on clear objectives.
All our work aligns with Egypt’s social development goals for inclusive sustainable growth. For 80 years, we’ve been learning the needs of Egypt, and sustainable and inclusive impacts can only succeed if we keep true to our purpose, which is keeping a focus on people-to-people work. The British Council has consistently been spreading the power of education, science, art and sports through cultural exchange with the UK because we seek impacts that are sustainable, long-term and inclusive, which is why our programmes are offered in almost 27 governorates.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.