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Following the results of the EU referendum, we have read a lot regarding Britain’s declining influence on the global stage. But not so when it comes to education, says The Times’s former Diplomatic Correspondent, Michael Binyon

Despite floods in Kerala,bomb threats in Pakistanand terror attacks in Kabul, the British Council last year saw a record four million people, across 124 countries, sit exams set by British professional bodies to gain qualifications in 140 different fields, ranging from English, architecture and dance to medicine, music and accountancy.

The rise reflects the huge global appetite for British diplomas and qualifications. The British Council now runs more examinations than any other educational body in the world. Last year it employed 26,000 staff to ensure the security and integrity of the tests and to invigilate exams that were held in Council offices almost every week of the year, with May and June seeing peak demand.

The British Council, a statutory body set up before World War I to promote British culture and the English language, now plays a bigger role than any other international organisation in helping students to gain globally recognised qualifications. In many countries a diploma from a British professional organisation is seen as offering life-changing opportunities.

English is overwhelmingly the subject most in demand. Thirty years ago, the Council pioneered IELTS – the International English Language Testing System – now used by 10,000 organisations across the world, and last year it delivered a record three million IELTS exams. The system, known now by students around the world, is jointly owned with Cambridge Assessment English, IELTS Australiaand IDP, an English language organisation that plays a leading role in student placement services in English-speaking countries.

The Council also distributes and administers British school examinations, including GCSE and A-levels, which are taken by hundreds of thousands of school-age pupils in English-speaking countries. The legacy of the British school system can be found across the world – in private English-speaking schools set up in English-speaking Commonwealth countries, as well as those in big cities from Moscow to Madrid that serve the local British expatriate community.

The exams are usually held in British Council offices or hired centres, which can vary from the big and well-equipped in Europe, Japanand parts of the Middle East to fairly modest and cramped exam rooms in developing countries. The numbers vary enormously. Sometimes an exam is arranged for just a single candidate. The biggest, by far, was the exam for financial professionals in Beijing last year. Some 15,000 candidates took part, under the same roof, in one single sitting. The Council hired 70,000 square metres of floor space on the day – equivalent to almost 10 football pitches. Nearly 1,000 staff were required to invigilate.

Some exams are held in the most challenging circumstances. The Council regularly has to deal with terror threats – especially in countries such as Iraqand Afghanistan– as well as floods, earthquakes and disruptions. Staff have to have contingency plans to ensure that the exams can still go ahead for school pupils, university candidates and professionals.

This year the exam centres in Kerala, in southern India, were used as emergency shelters from the widespread flooding. One exam had to be rescheduled several weeks later after the floods subsided.  In Bangladeshregular strike actions, including student protests, have made it difficult for candidates to travel to the venues, so alternative locations are being considered.

For the past three years militants in Pakistan have threatened to attack schools, and bomb threats have forced the Council step up security and look for other venues at short notice. In 2015 the earthquake in Nepalseverely disrupted the school exam season in May and June. Venues were destroyed, and the Council was unable to go ahead with any exams. And during recent attacks in Kabul an exam had to be cancelled as the safety of candidates and staff could not be guaranteed.

Most of the Council’s work around the world is earned through English teaching and the fees charged to exam candidates, as well as through government contracts and from public and private partnerships. Any surpluses are ploughed back into the business to deliver more cultural relations work. There are constant worries that the Treasury will cut the annual grant to the Council, but exams are a vital way of making its work almost self-sustaining.

The range of professional British exams administered by the Council is astonishing. It includes, for example, those set by the British Safety Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the General Medical Council, the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the Royal Statistical Society and the University of London International Programmes.

The Royal College of Surgeons in England has worked with the Council for more than 15 years to deliver its exams. Kassim Evans, the international exams manager, said: “As our international activity expands, so does our relationship with the British Council. The workforce are highly professional and very knowledgeable regarding all aspects of the examination process, which reassures our candidates.”

In future, more and more exams will be delivered by computer. Since 2015 the Council has been offering computer-based testing to awarding bodies across the world. These tests are offered in 200 different centres in 60 countries around the world. A Council global compliance team is now working on ways to ensure that confidentiality is maintained, that only authorised personnel have access to the tests and that performance monitoring and training for all test day personnel is maintained.

The huge popularity of British examinations is, undoubtedly, because they are in English, the first foreign language in almost all non-English-speaking countries. The Council knows that those wishing to get ahead later will have to start the language young – and has developed a range of apps and teaching programmes suitable for children. “Learning time with Timmy,” for example, is an app that can be used as early as the age of two, and uses animation, video, stories, song and drama to engage children up to the age of six. It also runs a huge number of courses by other providers – the most popular being the courses and exams developed by Cambridge University.

The popularity of English probably gives British professional associations an unfair advantage. Other European countries, especially those whose language is not widely spoken such as the Netherlandsor Sweden, have begun to offer higher education to overseas students in English, and also make provision for them to sit examinations in English.

Countries such as Franceand Germany, which have long tried to promote their languages and cultures, also invest heavily in cultural relations. France has a network of centres that are part of its Institut Français, the umbrella organisation for all French cultural projects. Founded by the French Foreign Ministry in 1907 – long before the British Council – it has 143 branches around the world and is particularly active in francophone Africa.

Germany’s Goethe Institut was founded only after World War II, and performs similar work in 159 branches, offering courses in German and especially in technical skills and professional examinations run by German organisations.

The exam work of both is dwarfed by that of the British Council, however. In the US, universities run recruitment tests for thousands of candidates, but there is no single government-sponsored body to run and process examinations overseas.


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