British Council prepares to embark on new agenda

The Prague Post

Focus will shift to multicultural programs and climate change

The British Council, one of the mainstays in bringing foreign culture to Prague, will be announcing changes in its focus and priorities within the next two weeks. How those changes will impact local offerings of music, film, authors and art exhibitions from the United Kingdom remains to be seen, but the organization’s role in initiating and sponsoring events will almost certainly be reduced.

“The British Council is moving away from being a grant-giving cultural institute to being a cultural partner working with other partners on a mutual agenda,” says Mandy Johnson, director of the British Council, Czech Republic.

Currently in the midst of a five-year review of its activities worldwide, the organization is expected to identify three new priorities: youth, climate change and intercultural dialogue. To some extent, these are already reflected in current and upcoming programming. And Johnson says she doesn’t think the change will greatly affect the level or quality of British cultural activity in the Czech Republic.

“Look at the number of programs and events with UK artists that are happening without our involvement,” she says. “There will continue to be a well-represented UK arts scene in the Czech Republic.”

Nor will the changes undercut the organization’s overall mission, Johnson says. “[The British Council’s] primary purpose is to build relationships between the UK and the countries we are in. It’s not about the UK saying we do all these wonderful things, but looking for areas of common interest and how we can learn from each other.”

Half of the local office’s budget comes from its English-language teaching and exam programs. The other half comes from the UK government, where program funding, as in all governments, is subject to periodic revision.

“The British government is reviewing all departments, looking for value for money and efficiency in all areas of government,” Johnson explains. “You must decide what your needs are and move accordingly.”

The early ’90s was a time of expansion for the Prague office of the British Council, which worked with the Czech government to train teachers and provided funding for English-language instruction.

It also began aggressively developing programming in the arts, bringing UK artists to the Czech Republic.

The organization’s influence in education will remain strong, with, for example, an online program called CzechKid scheduled to debut next month. A virtual tool for multicultural education in secondary and primary schools, it was developed by Dana Moree, a humanities teacher at Charles University who learned about a similar program in the United Kingdom while on a British Council–sponsored trip and wanted to introduce it here.

“[The program] is based on stories of 10 children coming from different cultural backgrounds,” Moree explains. “The characters present their families, hobbies and other aspects of their lives and discuss together various situations typical for multicultural environments.”

British Council support was key in creating the program. “CzechKid would not have come into existence without the British Council,” Moree says. “Practically, they supported the Web design and editing, but they also kindly and sensitively supported the whole process of creating CzechKid.”

Global warming is another key issue that will come to the fore soon, with a Climate Change Youth Summit scheduled for the end of March.

“We want young people from universities and NGOs to think about the issue seriously and join in the debate,” Johnson says. “The outcome of the summit will be a working group nominated by the participants and a draft youth manifesto on climate change which will be taken forward at a debate with senior politicians and industry leaders in early April.”

Otherwise, changes seem likely to come in the size and scope of events rather than the substance.

“We want to make sure everything we do fits around our priorities,” says Johnson. “We’ll still be doing all our activities, but they’ll be more focused.”

And hopefully more efficient. Johnson says part of the review process is looking at how the Council supports events, which need not be financially. It could also be through marketing or with IT assistance.

“For the last 10–15 years, we could be wide in our activities,” Johnson says. “But now we see more dialogue between our two countries, more areas of cooperation. We will refocus on our priorities and those of Prague and the Czech Republic.”