Premier Skills Programme - Photo Courtesy of British Council Official Site
CAIRO – 2 August 2018: Working in partnership with the Premier League and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the British Council has rolled-out its Premier Skills Program, which aims to teach the youths key skills and expertise through football. The program has led children to excel in school by pushing kids to work harder to be able to play their favorite sport: Football.
Besides their top and most beloved program, the British Council offers multiple other programs that aim to develop the cultural connections, as well as the scientific and artistic links, between Egypt and the UK. “From one participant to another, they take different things from the programs. So, one could learn about engaging with others, while another learns about accepting people with different abilities,” Alex Lambert, previous Acting Director and current Head of Programs at the British Council in Egypt, tells Egypt Today. To understand more about the British Council’s work over the years, its most popular programs and the Premier Skills Program, Egypt Today sits down with Lambert.
You are so young and have achieved quite a lot. Tell us how did it all start.
I feel like I have been working for many years actually.
Someone once told me, ‘Whatever you do, regardless of what it is, always do it to the best of your ability,’ and I have always tried to do that. I sometimes make mistakes, as we all often do, and I think it is really important to reflect on the things that we have done and the progress that we have made and look at what has worked well and what has not worked well, and learn from it. We also have to do things that we really enjoy and feel motivated by the work that we all do and hopefully, one’s work doesn’t feel like a day of work but rather like a hobby.
The British Council is a cultural exchange organization, and you have been a great Acting Director; what is your message to the Egyptian youths?
I think our message is that we always focus on creating opportunities for young people and the reason we do that is that by creating those opportunities for young Egyptians, it helps bridge connections between Egypt and the UK and ultimately our aim is to build friendly knowledge between the UK and Egypt; it is about building trust and understanding between those two countries. And to do that through the youths, through the English teaching, through the examinations that we run, through projects like the ones we have in education between universities or through developing skills, like the arts; right across all the work that we have, it is all about building those connections.
I think clearly 2018, for us, is a special year on many levels. It is our eightieth anniversary, so in December 1938, the British Council was first opened in Egypt—it was one of the first operations that we had around the world—and, it means that we have been doing that for decades; this kind of building of cultural relations. It has been around for so long that it has built a certain momentum and we have been able to engage with thousands of young people, probably millions of young Egyptians actually, and it is something that we really enjoy doing and that we would like to continue doing for the foreseeable future as well.
What is your evaluation of the British Council’s 80 years in Egypt?
We are still building on that evaluation actually. We are actually going through our history books and looking at the kind of things that we used to do as an organization and the kind of things that we used to do but stopped doing. But I think that building cultural relations is the thing that has been the undercurrent—that has continued—and that we have tried to maintain over [all these years]. Whatever is happening between the UK and any other country, it is absolutely crucial to have this cultural connection open and to open up scientific avenues between the UK and other countries.
You worked in Canada, Vietnam and South Sudan; how is Egypt different?
Actually, when I served in Canada, I was really struck by how friendly people were and I lived in Quebec and, as you know, Canadian winters are very harsh and really cold but the people are really warm and friendly. They are incredibly welcoming and warm-hearted and I have to admit, I never thought that I would meet more friendly people anywhere else in the world until I came to Egypt and I found Egyptians to be just as friendly. They are really welcoming and they are always willing to have a conversation and are always really interested to know what you are doing; they are really creative people, as well.
I also think they have a really good sense of humor. I think that is why British people and Egyptians have a particularly strong bond: We have a similar sense of humor. So, a joke you might tell in Egypt would probably work very well in the UK, but maybe not in other parts of the world. So, I think that is why we have a strong cultural bond.
Despite Cairo being such a mega-city—the largest city in Africa by far, it often feels like just a big village. You are often bumping into people you know and it feels as though you can reach out to almost anybody and they would be willing to give you a hand.
Could you tell us a bit about the Premier Skills Program?
So, I mentioned that 2018 is such an important year for us but it is an extra special year when you talk about the Premier Skills Program for a number of reasons. It is the first time that Egypt has been in the World Cup for 28 years. I know that the Egyptian team’s performance was not what everyone had hoped for but it is still a huge achievement to reach the World Cup finals. Also, for the Premier Skills Program, 2018 is the tenth anniversary of Premier Schools in Egypt and I think that it is one of the programs that most exhibit the British Council’s goals. It is ultimately a membership between a number of organizations. So, we bring the Premier Leagues’ world-renowned referees and coaches and on the ground here in Egypt we partner with the Ministry of Youth and Sports very closely. It is a partnership that we have seen grow and is going from strength to strength to potentially grow the project further.
I think, at the core, what the Premier Skills Program seeks to do works very well in Egypt because it provides opportunities for young Egyptians through football. Football is kind of the world’s most famous sport and it is a very effective way of engaging young people. Wherever I go in Egypt, people tend to know the Premier League; they seem to know about football rivalries in Egypt between Zamalek and Ahly; they seem to be talking about Mohamed Salah’s latest successes. So, I think it is a language that all Egyptians speak and a language that people speak worldwide.
And I should mention that it is not just in Egypt that we are running this program, we are actually running this program across 29 countries. Since it started, we have been growing it and have been working with thousands of people and coaches around the world and these coaches have then worked to train about 1.6 million people around the world.
People often ask us why we work with football. I think it is because it is very effective with young people. It captives their imagination and by finding something they are interested in, we are able to engage them in a very meaningful way: We use football to teach them about leadership, teamwork and developing specific skills that they then use when they go onto the next stages of their life, whether that is employment or education. Even football as just a sport, as a concept, is interesting for learning about yourself and about others. You have this notion of having a referee and that teaches you about arbitration. I think there is a lot in football; it teaches you a lot. So, that is why we work through football, to really engage young people in a simple way.
I think one of the best ways to see how effective the program is, is by speaking to beneficiaries and to coaches, but also to young Egyptians and the Egyptian coaches themselves that have gone through this program over the past few years and to the children who have been coached by these coaches.
So, we bring Premier League coaches over to Premier School countries, and they work with Egyptian coaches. They teach them about the beautiful game, they teach them how to be a good coach; they run very open sessions where coaches from across the county can speak to one another. One of the best things is that we get coaches from all over; I think that coaches from all 27 governorates have been involved in some way or another in the program and have been able to share experiences in coaching from their own governorates. The first phase is elementary—it is training—and the successful coaches, those who really engage, go on to the next stage. Since we started 10 or 11 years ago, thousands of kids have been reached through the Premier Skills Program. Given the popularity of football in Egypt and the popularity of the Premier League, we see it going on for many years.
You have two important segments: Individuals with special needs and women. Seeing women from Upper Egypt play football is not something we usually see; tell us how you bring those segments into the program and how you tailor to their needs?
It is really critical that we engage women, men, girls and boys as equally as possible because creating opportunities means you develop skills that you can then use to go achieve whatever afterwards, if you want to go and work or if you have other ambitions in life. Whatever program we are running, we try to make sure that it is reaching women and girls as equally as possible. We know that in certain parts of Egypt, it can be difficult sometimes for young girls to take part in football but that does not mean that they are not interested.
At the moment we have a project that is going on called ‘A thousand girls, a thousand dreams’. It has been going on from April to September, and the idea here is to train coaches in a way that allows them to go on and train young girls directly. I think just under 50 percent of our coaches are female, and we are always working to increase that as well. In terms of girls taking part in the program, about 60 percent of participants are girls.
To make sure our sessions are inclusive, we also run our sessions in venues that are accessible to all participants.
I think the thing is about our role is that we never want to say that it is ours, we are always in partnerships and the partnerships are always crucial for programs to work. We often seem to be the key organization but we are working in equal partnership with the Ministry of Sports and with the Premier League itself. Our experience is that partnerships are the best way to work.
The government is a great partner and even though I have only been in Egypt for a few months, we have already had a number of discussions about the Premier Skills Program and how we can expand; in particular, we have discussed how we can take the program to even more hard-to-reach places in Egypt. This is what we are looking at now: How can we take the program to border governorates? This is because we know that when you work with places outside of the capital, this is really where the people who need the opportunities most are. This is where the government has been so great; they genuinely have the interest of young Egyptians at heart and I know that part of their strategy is revolved around how they can engage women and girls more. This is one of the most exciting partnerships and discussions we have had with the Ministry.
How has the British Council contributed towards the arts and the creative economy in Egypt?
I was actually born in France and I grew up there and moved to the UK when I was nine. Now, if you have been to France and the UK, you will see that culture in France is seen everywhere. You can see it in the architecture and in museums. Then, when I moved to the UK, I did not understand where the culture was, and I think it took me a few years to understand that it is not a superficial culture. It is genuinely in everything we do and I think that the creative culture is one of the strengths of the UK; it [the UK] has been pushing it and developing it for several years and it is one of the fastest growing economies in the UK.
At the European level, it actually represents one of the greatest contributors to GDP; I think about 6.5 percent of the workforce is employed in the creative economy and about 6 percent of the GDP comes from the creative industry.
I think the UK has a lot of stories to share in that sector and that is why we have brought that to Egypt. In terms of how we can provide experiences of what we have and to provide how the future of the arts’ landscape can look like in Egypt and what it can provide towards the positive development, economic development and social development. It is one of the most exciting things we are doing. We are working with policy-makers, independent people in the art scene and institutions to see how people, particularly young people, can find employment in the arts. There is a famous quote from John Newbigin, who is the chair of Creative England, and he said, ‘Oil is the key resource of the 20th century, creativity is going to be the key resource of the 21st century.’
What kind of programs do you have for the arts?
It is mainly about showcasing the works of Egyptian and UK artists and bringing UK artists here for a natural share of artistic resources. Naturally, we tend to work with emerging artists—not experienced artists and the big names you may think of—that have a career to develop. In the arts’ world, it is about sharing. I think it helps both Egyptians and the British people to understand the cultures better.
It seems that after the hike in prices, many Egyptians are going to study in the UK. How does the British Council facilitate this?
Education is a big topic. We have one project that is called connecting classrooms that we have in many countries across the globe. It is for teachers and school leaders to improve the learning outcome in classrooms and we do this by sharing the resources that can be used anywhere online. It is about improving teachers’ ability. It is a smaller project, you might say, especially in terms of the size of Egypt but the feedback we get is very positive. We are framing that project to support the changes that are happening in the education sector in Egypt. The program is available in 11 governorates. It is really a case of having small but quality interventions in different parts of the country.
We are also launching another project called the National Teacher Training Project in partnership with the Ministry of Education. The plan is to try and reach 37,000 primary school teachers over two years and to improve their English proficiency so that they are better equipped in terms of actually delivering their classes; that should start in the next few months. It has been in the planning phase for about a year.
Moving to higher education, in general, it is about supporting Egyptians who are interested in studying in the UK. So, we organize exhibitions and fares two or three times a year, where different UK universities come and present the different undergraduate and post-graduate courses that they run so young Egyptians can find out all the information they want and sign up the course.
Recently, we facilitated the visit of 11 UK universities to come to Egypt to meet with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and to meet with Egyptian universities and look at how they can develop partnership models. Actually, Egypt is one of the biggest markets in the world for Egyptians studying UK qualifications and degrees. We recognize that the UK is a very expensive country to go to and it may not always be very easy to access education but now a lot of UK providers are providing and offering their courses in Egypt through various higher education institutions and online means as well. I think Egypt is actually the fifth largest market in the world in terms of UK transnational education, that is what we call it and I think the biggest in Africa as well. And of course, we are also working to facilitate setting up branches of UK universities in Egypt. The UK is interested in exploring that and the Egyptian government is excited to provide these campuses; our role is the middleman.