The UK has always had huge cultural clout. By connecting people through innovative education and the soft power of the English language, Ally MacIndoe CA, Finance Director MENA at the British Council, is keeping it that way
Many readers, whether in the UK or abroad, will have heard of the British Council. You might be familiar with its long-running study and work abroad programmes, or know someone who’s sat an International English Language Test (IELTS). But you may not be aware of the wide-ranging impact this cultural organisation has had worldwide since its formation in 1934.
First and foremost the British Council is the UK’s cultural relations organisation. Our mission is to promote a wider knowledge of the UK and the English language as a way to develop relationships and engender trust with the rest of the world. We do that through English – language, education, arts and culture – predominantly with young people. We strengthen the UK’s place in the world and promote prosperity and trade. Although a not-for-profit, we do have some commercial operations. Our turnover is around £1.3bn, of which only a small portion comes from government. Around 85% of our income is from partnership agreements, delivering English-language teaching courses and administering exams overseas, such as IELTS, the number one standard for English testing, which we co-own with Cambridge University. Last year we connected directly with 76 million people globally – almost one billion when digital channels are included – and we promote the UK as a force for good in global challenges.
One such is climate change, where the UK is seen as a leader in terms of innovation and campaigning. Our recent survey of 40,000 young people across 36 countries identified this as their chief area of concern. In response we’ve launched a new global campaign in the run-up to COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference being held in Glasgow later this year.
The Climate Connection Campaign is a brilliant example of harnessing our global network of young people to share perspectives, and look for solutions. It includes arts and science showcases, university scholarships, funded research and training. The aim of such initiatives is to take the best of the UK to the rest of the world, and the best of the rest of the world back to the UK – brokering that two-way partnership. Finding solutions to big problems by harnessing all those good ideas creates amazing opportunities.
It wouldn’t be possible without communication and understanding. English is the language of science and technology, commerce and trade, and diplomacy – it’s key to enabling a transfer of information around the globe. It’s why four million people took an IELTS exam with us last year.
The English language is growing in popularity. More than 60 national governments worked with us last year to support English-language education – over 130,000 teachers took part in our training, adding to our online network of over 10 million English-language teachers – the largest network of teachers in the world. Last year, 96 million people used our digital channels to learn English.
It is the official language in over 60 countries. Around 20% – and growing – of the planet’s population speak it and it opens up a world of job opportunities. That’s why in Dubai, where I’m based, lots of Emirati families send their children to English national curriculum schools to learn the language’s fundamentals and enjoy the high standards of the English education system.
British Council Iraq, in my region, delivers the largest-capacity building programme in primary and secondary education in the Middle East, training over 30,000 educators, developing an inclusive framework for disabled education, training over 800 teachers of deaf children and 8,000 counsellors to work with traumatised children from conflict provinces. The aim is to deliver a better standard of life by educating the next generation using UK expertise.
It all adds up to enormous soft power. The British Council runs research annually to understand how young people around the world rank the UK against other destinations in terms of education, study, tourism… the UK is consistently in the top five, thanks, in part, to the work being done by the British Council.
Looking after the finances for some of these projects and seeing their impact is a privilege. When I joined the British Council in 2012, we had a forward-thinking CFO who wanted to professionalise the finance function and needed people with commercial experience. I’d come through Virgin retail firms – Mobile, Megastores and Health Bank.
When I had my daughter and went on maternity leave, I had one of those life-changing shifts in mindset. I wanted to pour all my skills and experience into doing good in the world so I was delighted this role came up. I wouldn’t be here without my CA qualification. My training gave me a second sense about the importance of accuracy. Casting my eye over a report and asking, “Does it make sense? Is it the right answer?” That questioning, even in the last five minutes before a board meeting, can prevent disaster. All those hours spent checking annual reports during my early days at PwC were worth it.
The meticulous attention to detail I learned during my training is an invaluable skill you’ll use for the rest of your life. My CA qualification has unlocked doors, taken me to different countries and given me confidence to handle complex real-world situations. Finance jobs fall into two camps: are you a qualified chartered accountant or not? Every opportunity I’ve had has been unlocked by being able to answer yes to that question.