Published on February 3, 2008
As country director of the British Council, John Whitehead brings to his role not just a wealth of experience in international education but an unshakeable faith in the unassailable position of the English language. At the helm of the BC since last September, he's already set up his strategy and has more plans in the pipeline.
He's determined to ensure that more young Thais speak English well, that educators enjoy better links with UK institutions, that more Thai students have the chance to receive a British education and that Britain enjoys a better perception overseas. With at least three years to achieve these objectives, Whitehead knows he'll need good teamwork from his 201 staff and constructive networking with the BC's Thai counterparts.
"For me, the biggest challenge is to be able to arrive in a country like Thailand and see how we can work together in a mutually beneficial way while at the same time understanding and being respectful of the culture. We want to learn from the Thais too," he says.
During his 18-year career with the BC, Whitehead, who is fluent in French, Spanish and German, has served in several countries, including Columbia, Poland, Tunisia and the Middle East. Before his Bangkok posting, he was the London-based director charged with the BC's global English language programmes.
His big breakthroughs include the development phase of English for the World, a suite of products for learners and teachers, a client-funded Peacekeeping Project in 27 countries, and Accreditation UK, the accreditation scheme for 400 British education providers.
Since arriving in Bangkok, Whitehead has been supervising preparations for EdFest08, the largest educational event in Southeast Asia, which is organised by the British Council in partnership with the Ministry of Education and other partners committed to supporting educational reform in Thailand. The event, which runs through February 15 and is themed "Global Citizenship and United Futures", emphasises education without borders.
"The EdFest is all about sharing and learning. We want to see young people look beyond their own boundaries and understand what's happening in other parts of the world."
Whitehead stresses the need for youngsters to tap the power of "internationalised" education, explaining that it can help them deal with global issues more effectively.
"People need to understand that the world out there is a bleak one. Staying inside the box of private concerns is not the future. It's important to learn how we can contribute to solving some of the big problems by using discussions and debates."
Going to Britain for education can also help, he adds, as it offers a quality experience with a rigorous quality assessment to ensure that standards are maintained.
"We are very determined to make sure that the quality of educational products and services [in the UK] is very high," he says. "UK institutions bring together people from many parts of the world who can share and develop ideas in an exploratory way." He adds that last year about 5,000 Thai students went to Britain for different levels of study.
Whitehead says the assumptions about the gradual decline of English as a global language are true, citing research findings by David Graddol, the author of "The Future of English?"
According to Graddol, the number of people learning English is likely to reach a peak of around two billion in the next 10 to 15 years and then decline. Mandarin and Spanish are already challenging English in some parts of the world for domination of educational resources.
Asia will probably determine the future of global English, with China and India now holding the key to the long-term future of English as a global language.
But Whitehead remains optimistic about the English language's survival in a new world order, saying that it will go from a global language to a basic skill. In 20 years' time, he says, quoting Graddol's findings, two thirds of the world's population will be learning the language. And the BC is ambitious about tapping into this vast market.
"Multinational companies no longer state they require an English speaker when advertising for staff because they take it for granted that English is a basic skill that everybody has, like IT skills. Not very long ago, you used to specify computer literacy," he explains.
"We are not pushing English simply because we speak English in our own country. We have an ambition, which is that by 2010 every learner in the world will have access to the resources and the materials they need from the UK."
And in developing countries like Thailand, where demand for English is surging, the BC will soon introduce new methodologies to help people learn the language. A new scheme will develop the skills and confidence of Thai English language teachers in primary schools, while innovative programmes such as "mobile" and "online" English will reach out to a new group of learners.
"We're helping Thailand to improve the learning and teaching of English because Thailand wants that. People understand that you need English to operate in the modern world," he says.
These programmes will ultimately serve another important purpose: that of creating a better understanding of not just UK education, but Britain itself. Whitehead believes his country is not well understood.
"Many people perceive the UK as rather old-fashioned and out of date. But Britain is a dynamic, forward-looking, multicultural and innovative society and we want to demonstrate this through the programmes we run. We want to say to the Thai people, 'look at Britain as a partner and let us work with you on a variety of projects'.
"Britain has got a lot to offer in terms of innovation and creativity. So yes, we are trying to develop and change the perceptions. We are creating the links and relationships."
For information on Edfest, visit Britishcouncil.org/thailand-education-edfest-2008.htm.