Sensitive to the views of  other stakeholders?

 Now that would make a change

Hugo Swire ,the Minister of State at the FCO, in a debate on 10 November ,on the British Council,  reminded the House that although the British Council makes a significant contribution to the UK international profile and …Its role is more relevant than ever: That  the  most recent Triennial Review  “also found that activity was not always well aligned with other bodies representing British interests overseas, and concluded that transparency, accountability and clarity of purpose should be improved.” The other British interests alluded to here are ,in the main, other UK  education providers.(ie exporters)

He added “I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. That is why I am pleased that the British Council has introduced a new independent complaints process run by Verita, which will help it better to hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.”

The British Council had adamantly refused, for many years, and despite regular complaints from other education providers, to accept that its operations in commercial areas represented a conflict of interests, and that it  lacked transparency in the  way it ran its commercial operations .  Essentially the BC was competing against other  UK providers, while nominally, at least,  it was supposed to be promoting them abroad, aided by taxpayers money and the good offices of our diplomats.  Instead the BC cherry picked the best contracts and competed directly with other UK providers for many others.  The Triennial Review accepted that these concerns had some substance. It stated that ‘Concerns raised with the Review Team suggest that the Trustees have not this far been sufficiently active in listening and responding to external stakeholder concerns or understanding and managing conflicts of interest.”

‘We recommend that the British Council operating model be amended in order to increase transparency relating to income generating activity, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest;’

‘We recommend that the British Council, FCO and other relevant Government departments agree to establish an effective complaints mechanism for UK providers that feel they have been unfairly disadvantaged by the British Council and that this includes an option of appeal to an arbiter independent of the British Council or its Board. ‘

It also recommended ‘that clearer separation is achieved through either legal or administrative means and that, particularly if an administrative solution is pursued, some transfer of responsibility for commercial support to UK educational providers is agreed by both organisations.’


The British Council has awarded Verita a three-year contract to provide its independent complaints review service. The British Council operates in over 100 countries, building cultural relations between the UK and the rest of the world through arts, education and society programmes. Verita consultant Jess Heinemann said: “As a charity and non-departmental public body, The British Council has a duty to ensure that its complaints process is fair and transparent. It chose Verita because of our reputation for independence and treating people fairly. “With such diverse operations, we expect to deal with complainants from a wide range of individuals and organisations, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the complaints process. Our goal is to satisfy all parties with well-judged resolutions.”




Helping sell UK education abroad? Well not quite

Cull it or Reform it


It has long been part of the British Councils remit to represent British culture and education abroad. It has described itself as the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations, and operates in over 100 countries.

In support of its role, it is given taxpayers money in grant form. And allowed to undertake commercial operations too, by most accounts of variable quality.  But there’s a big problem.

For at the core of the BCs operations lies a corrosive conflict of interests that is damaging  for UK commercial interests, stifles the development of an education market abroad  and tarnishes the reputation of the BC to such a degree  that it raises serious  questions over its  very purpose and whether it actually works against rather than for the UKs commercial interests.

The Council’s main activities in English teaching and exams comprise seven main product areas; adult learners, young learners, professional learners, online content, peacekeeping English and teacher development. Some of the work it does is quite good, certainly according to the National Audit Office and it works from time to time with highly regarded UK education specialists. A Commercial Director was appointed from the private sector in mid-2007 to  develop a new strategy, a key element of which is a new network of 40 in-house champions to stimulate activity in each business area and region.

However, while this quango  claims on the one hand to represent UK education abroad, it has a rather  perverse, one might even say  counterintuitive way of going about it.  It competes directly against UK suppliers in these markets.  More than that, because it is, in part, grant funded it competes against them at a considerable advantage, and it does not have to demonstrate there is no material cross-subsidy of its commercial activities out of public funds.

It is doubly advantaged because it  gets the active support of local diplomats with BC offices often co-located  with the local  British Embassy, tied as if by an umbilical cord. It has privileged access too and early warning   of new information of new local business opportunities which as it happens  is not passed with alacrity to competitors.  And the Council derives a cost advantage in particular countries through its diplomatic and charitable status, and can use this to offer better terms and conditions to attract good teachers and centre managers, and students. Its charitable status also means it is not subject to Freedom of Information requirements, which militates against full transparency and accountability concerning its operations, although funded in part by taxpayers.

So, one has to ask a pretty basic question -is it possible for it to wear two hats at the same time? To be on the one hand a disinterested promoter and champion of the education  sector and concurrently a direct, in your face,  subsidised competitor? Certainly, not on the face of it. And, if you ask UK suppliers, not in practice either.

Significantly, a 2008 National Audit Office Report ‘ The British Council: Achieving Impact’ said that the Council ‘ needs to demonstrate more clearly to its stakeholders and competitors how growth supports the Council’s mission and charitable purposes and that it does not represent unfair competition. The Council can draw on methods used by, amongst others, the BBC, to give added assurance on fair competition.’ Something of a strange observation given that most of the BBC’s competitors whinge about its anti-competitive practices.  Since the reports publication,  needless to say ,the BC   has done nothing to act on this recommendation.

The BC is, of course, aware of the charges against it. It thinks it has got around this little issue of conflicted interests by claiming, at least that is until now, that it maintains Chinese walls between its cultural and contracting activities (remember, these ‘walls’ have worked so well in the City context! Or not).

But a new pamphlet out from the BC appears to blow this claim right out of the water. In its booklet titled ‘2010/11 Our Scale of Ambition’ the BC says that ‘the British Council gets its revenue from many different sources including a number of contracts with external bodies.  Even though those contracts are large, worth £87 million in 2008/2009, we believe the scope exists to increase them in number and value.  Specifically we plan to increase their value to £197 million by 2014.   The aims are for the British Council to be seen as an important player in our priority markets and sectors by clients and competitors and to present our contracts business as a fully integral part of our cultural relations programme.’

Some Wall! A sieve springs to mind.

At least the truth is now out there.

One of the major constraints on the development of an education market abroad has been  the presence of the commercial wing of the  BC in those markets. It uses its subsidized position and political leverage and patronage to get pretty much what it wants with its diplomatic top cover. However, its presence and threat to other UK companies increases their costs and  the risks of UK companies entering markets where the BC is operating.  But there have also been instances  too  where British companies have sought to exploit a market, taken on the up front development and marketing  costs   with the attendant  risks, established themselves, bedded in , only to watch  the BC come in on their coattails and undercut them.

Who cares about this? Well, the taxpayer should care because quite often a service being provided, subsidized by the taxpayer, could be provided but at no expense to the taxpayer. Politicians should care because their job is to ensure that taxpayers get value for money and should be keen to see the development a mature education market abroad (good for our balance of payments) and in an area where the UK should have a competitive advantage. They should also care if markets are not fair and are not competitively neutral because, if they are neither of these things then the end user, normally in the third world, will not be getting value for money. And perish the thought that we should be exploiting the most disadvantaged!  And, needless to say education providers in both the profit and not for profit sectors   aren’t happy about it either   because it denies them business and they worry about much of the quality of provision being offered by the Council, which might tarnish the UK education brand .They are particularly unhappy that politicians don’t seem to care very much about it. But then again that’s not so hard to understand .If you were an MP or Peer (in previous Parliaments at least) you would probably  get up in the Commons, or other place  and support an organisation that has just given you an all expenses paid trip to an exotic location abroad to attend a ‘cultural event’ ,with partner in tow.

One well known critic of the BC is David Blackie an education service provider. He has highlighted, interalia, the perceived inadequacies of the  Councils  Education UK web site (ie its rubbish) .  On the Council, he said on his blog,   “It cannot be dependent as it is on government funding and be independent of government. It cannot be dependent on government funding and be a charity (which it is of course). It cannot be dependent on government funding, operate out of diplomatic premises, enjoy civil service pension arrangements, and compete on a level playing field with genuine risk-taking enterprise either at home or abroad. It cannot have monopoly powers and multiple privileges in any sector while also being allowed to compete in that sector. It cannot both explore business links…..on Britain’s behalf, and then unilaterally decide to exploit those business links for itself, as in North Africa for example’… Well actually it can.  But, maybe not for much longer.

Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the dawn of a new politics ,where accountability and transparency and value for  taxpayers money really does matter. Certainly it’s a new age of austerity which  has forced the n government to look for new efficiencies, greater productivity and   a big reduction in waste.

The  Government needs to get quickly to a rather fundamental question in its review of quangos. What actually is the point of the BC? Is it vital to our national  interests? If so how?  If it has a point ie promotion of culture then  make it an arm of the FCO, grant funded and a lot smaller, leaner and more focused. Stop pretending its independent of the Government. Few abroad thinks that’s the case.  If it is so vital to education abroad make it a genuine commercial enterprise, with no subsidies, competing freely in an open market and  with no special privileges. If there is demand for its services, it will thrive. Let the market decide.

The BC has been afforded deference, privileges  and patronage in equal measure for far  too long . As with any protected producer interest it is complacent, bureaucratic and  largely unaccountable .  Worse though, it stands charged that it damages UK commercial interests abroad.  Its surely time for a reckoning.


 Another think tank attacks the effectiveness of the education quangocracy


 A report from the Centre Right think tank the Centre for Policy Studies calls for the abolition of two thirds of the government agencies that deal with education, and it claims that more than a billion pounds has been spent on the taxpayer-funded quangos with little evidence that they have raised standards in schools.

The Centre for Policy Studies urges reform of the main organisations, including Ofsted, the General Teaching Council and the School Food Trust. The findings echo those of another think tank Reform which at the last budget called for a cull of quangos. The CPS research analysed 11 education quangos receiving public funding totalling £1.2 billion in 2007-08. In the last year, the cost to the taxpayer of these organisations has increased by 12 per cent.

The study recommends scrapping two-thirds of Britain’s education quangos to free schools from red tape and save the taxpayer more than £600 million. Significant savings could be made by giving more power to schools to control their own curriculum and train teachers, researchers said David Laws, the schools spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: “At a time when public finances are being squeezed, we must ask if these quangos are necessary.”

Michael Gove commented that efforts had to be “directed to identifying waste and unnecessary bureaucracy” to “concentrate resources where they are needed: in the classroom”. David Cameron recently announced that the Tories would look closely at quangos and get rid of those that were unable to prove their worth, though he fell short of listing those he thought unnecessary. This will have to await a review, that is evidence based, so don’t expect any quick reforms under the Tories.

 The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Government’s technology agency, Becta, are among those that should be abolished, researchers at the right-of-centre think tank said. The charges against quangos, more generally, are that they fail adequately to measure their performance and outputs and measure their inputs instead; that they fail to demonstrate the value they add-particularly at the chalk face; that they lack transparency in the way they report their results and what they pay their executives ; that they are unaccountable in that neither parliament nor other regulators such as the national audit office systematically and regularly scrutinise what they do, how they do it and whether they provide taxpayers with value for money; and, this is a particular bug near of the private and not for profit sectors, they compete unfairly for government contracts, subsidised by the taxpayer and cross subsidise their operations both here and abroad.

In short, arms length accountability is not direct accountability and serves to increase the perceived gap between the government and its agencies and the electorate/taxpayer. When something goes wrong in a quango such as the LSC or QCA as has happened recently this perception is reinforced. Buck passing is institutionalised, with politicians failure to take responsibility for mistakes in these agencies  serving to confirm just how unaccountable these bodies  are in practice.

 The Department for Children, Schools and Families’ annual report in 2008 revealed that productivity in UK education had fallen by 0.7 per cent a year between 2000 and 2006, while the scope of quangos activities has increased dramatically.

In the Governments drive to improve efficiency and productivity quangos are rarely mentioned, though they are increasing their role in education The authors of the report argue that the new QCDA (formerly the QCA) should be scrapped and replaced by a small Curriculum Advisory Board, with the aim of freeing schools from centralised control in the national curriculum.

 Plans by ministers to abolish national strategies and “repeated” fiascos in the Sats exams, showed the failure of the QCA, it said.

Among the reports key recommendations were: The TDA should be abolished. Teacher training should be employment-based. Trainee teachers should be funded through a voucher scheme. The NCSL (and the mandatory nature of the NPQH), Becta, 11 MILLION, Teachers’ TV, and STRB should all be abolished, while the remit and funding of PfS should be reduced. The GTC and SFT should become voluntary organisations and should receive no government funding. Ofsted should reduce in size and focus exclusively on what happens in the classroom.

Other quango critics have suggested that the SSATs role should also be reviewed. At the heart of the issue concerning education quangos lies their lack of accountability, transparency and competitive neutrality.

 And this in turn begs the question- could their work be better delivered and at less cost through the private and the third sectors? One thing is for sure, they have acted as a major obstacle to the development of a mature supply market in education both here and abroad, where the UK should be a world leader. Suppliers find the risks and costs of competing against grant funded quangos just too high. Most have been driven abroad to look for new opportunities but, even there, find their own Government promoting  taxpayer funded  quangos for contracts at their expense. The SSAT, NCSL and British Council are  on the list of the usual suspects here.

 So much for contestability in the market, one of the Governments cherished aims,we were told. CPS Report; School quangos;

An agenda for abolition and reform TOM BURKARD AND SAM TALBOT RICE