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Home2023 IssuesMelanie Butler, in conversation with British Council’s Mark Walker

Melanie Butler, in conversation with British Council’s Mark Walker

”We are really asking questions,” says Mark Walker about the British Council’s new report on the “Future of English.” It is not – the British Council’s Director of English and Exams explains – a report like the previous iterations by the late David Graddol, which tried to predict the future. It is a collection of the themes that emerged from round table meetings of professionals from different sectors across the world.

The report is valuable for education departments and researchers. But what does it have to say to the business end, language schools in the UK and abroad, exam boards, or even publishers and agents?

In Mark’s view, we need to rethink everything.

“What does native speaker even mean?” he says. “What is the role of the teacher in an era of AI? What form of English should we be teaching and testing?”

“Why ban L1 in the classroom?” I say. It is a question I have been asking for over 40 years.

L1 can be very useful, he admits. But “it depends on the context.”

What works in a primary school, in Spain, for example, may not work in a multilingual class in Bournemouth or Brisbane.

Context is important in testing too. The feedback from the round table meetings held around the world found a demand for tests in regional variants, for example Singaporean English (Singlish). To really succeed in Singapore, Mark argues, you need to get to grips with Singlish.

“How can teachers, who have never successfully learnt a foreign language, possibly understand the process their students are going through?”

He should know; he lived there for five years when he was the British Council’s Director for East Asia. Prior to that he was Director of Examinations, a sector he clearly understands well.

There is a demand for English, he tells me, for Language tests in a wide range of professional domains: medicine, air traffic control, the military.

“Are we seeing a return to ESP?” I ask. It is a sector that was previously a money-maker for private language schools.


But above all there is a demand for tests of productive skills; speaking and writing. But using human markers means they cost too much in many countries. Could AI solve that problem? This focus on the practicalities of the bottom line is unsurprising. Walker was called back from Asia when Covid hit, and the British Council faced bankruptcy – his focus on cost effectiveness is as strong as his clear fascination for academic theory and technological developments and their impact in the classroom and the exam room.

One area where the policy of the British Council is perhaps counterintuitive is its support for multilingualism. They recently advised a North African government not to swap French for English but to teach them both, bringing in English at Middle school. But then, in Britain, the British Council works for the UK government monitoring the teaching of foreign languages in England’s schools.

Isn’t the real problem in EFL, I ask, not just nativespeakerism, but the monolingual mindset of native speakers of English? How can teachers, who have never successfully learnt a foreign language, possibly understand the process their students are going through?

“In Britain we have been weak in that area,” he admits, “but there are signs of improvement.”

It is the approach to English Medium Education laid out in the “Future of English” which is likely to cause the most furore. The British Council has come down against primary age children being taught academic subjects in English.

“Our view is that learning a language as a specific skill is not a bad thing,” he says carefully. But the position that basic education should be taught in L1 especially in the early years, remains strong.

But what about the many hundreds of British-style international schools across the world now enrolling the children of wealthy local parents? What about the bilingual nurseries which the British Council run in Singapore and Hong Kong?

“Those are very specific contexts,” he counters. Because English is a community language there?


“And what about the courses you run in English and Coding?”

“It is teaching the language for a very specific context.”

CLIL is not, in the British Council’s view, about teaching the subject, which will come as a surprise to the bilingual state schools in Spain. When they teach, say, geography in English, they expect the kids to learn the subject too.

With the demand from middle class parents across the world for EME, isn’t it just too late to turn the tide?

Meanwhile, in the US, bilingual primary education is equally popular with English speaking parents as it is with migrants. So, when foreign governments want advice on how to do it, they won’t be asking the British Council.

Talking accreditation and teacher supply

“The British Council has been involved in English teaching for very many years and we have built a strong reputation; we have a brand. British Council accreditation means UK language Centres can benefit from that branding,” Mark tells me.

I couldn’t agree more. Agents certainly look for the BC logo when choosing a school, only to be burnt when around 20% of British Council Accredited Centres went bust during COVID, often owing agents money. It was perfectly predictable to anyone looking at schools’ accounts pre-pandemic, but Council inspectors do not check the financial position. Most agents, though, think they do.

When one operator went quite early in the pandemic, agents wrote to the Gazette asking for advice.

“You should have checked their accounts,” I told them.

They didn’t need to do so, they replied. They relied entirely on the British Council Mark conceded, “We need to train the agents better.” But hasn’t the British Council been accrediting agents for years?

There is still an oversupply in the UK, I say.

“The question of managing supply is for our partners, English UK,” says Mark, firmly. “If they wanted us to inspect a thousand schools we would do so.”

We move on to the teacher shortage; a global problem for English language schools, as the British Council, with language centres in 40 countries, knows only too well.

“It is an endless topic of debate here in the office,” says Mark. “What exactly is in short supply? What are the critical skills we need in teachers? Can we use more variants of blended learning? How can we increase entry into the profession?”

One problem, I point out, is the cost of training. Schools I know in Spain now offer four-week courses for free, but tie the takers into a contract first.

“We’re looking at some kind of apprenticeship,” he offers. “And how we can make best use of talented local teachers.”

Something, I point out, which UK summer schools did for years until Brexit.

Economists say when labour is in short supply, put the wages up It’s already happening in big name destinations: London, Dublin, even. Malta. Why not in the British Council’s own schools?

I do not mention it. After all, Mark Walker is the man whom the British Council called back from Asia to help when they were faced with bankruptcy; he needs solutions which don’t endanger the bottom line.

Don’t we all?

Get your free copy of the “Future of English: Global Perspectives” here.


Special Supplement:

The role of tech in ELE: Mike Solly asks if Tech can narrow the equity gap.

Adapting Assessment: Mina Patel proposes how assessment needs to change in our modern world

Does EME benefit students?: Ann Veitch brings English-Medium Education under the spotlight.

English in the multilingual classroom: Steve Copeland discusses the role of English in a multilingual world.

Images courtesy of Jon Spaull and Library
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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