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Where the system brands you

Ruth Gee, the British Council’s regional director for India and Sri Lanka, explains to Ayesha Banerjee why she passionately believes in equal opportunity and diversity

education Updated: Nov 25, 2009 09:25 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

You are known as a strong advocate of equal opportunity and diversity. What led to your beliefs?
For that, I have to go back historically… I found myself (in) one of a very small group of women in a man’s world, and I was struck by the fact that women are equally capable as men, if they deal with the barriers that exist, which in the UK revolves around issues like healthcare and support for families. It’s not a place where we have domestic support, so it can be very difficult for women.

I also learnt early in life that the system can brand you a success or failure. At the age of 11, I actually passed the Eleven Plus — an examination that existed at that time to decide who should go to Grammar School and have more advantaged education. My brother failed the exam, and, therefore, went along with 75 per cent for less favourable education. That seemed to be patently unfair, because I knew from the outset that he was equally capable.

I, therefore, believe education is about opening doors and opportunities rather than closing opportunities or making people feel that they are not good enough. I believe in Howard Gardner’s views (on the seven intelligences). We express our intelligences in different ways. For some people, it may be creative, for some it can be numerical and for others it could be linguistic.

The emotional quotient of our lives is every bit as important as our IQ. My point is that people are different but equally valuable and I would like to and try and apply that wherever I am.

Fortunately, the British Council has a very well-established equality and diversity policy and practice, and I’m delighted to be at a place where people are valued regardless of race, sex, religion, disability, faith and so on.

You also believe that mentoring and coaching go a long way in a person’s development. How?
I think a coach and mentor can help increase our self-awareness.

I believe I’m good at dealing with people, I think I’m good at looking at the big picture and being quite analytical. But I also know that I could be more technical about putting bits of the jigsaw together.

You have also been a work-shadow and been work-shadowed yourself. What have you learnt from these experiences?
Shadowing means you have to literally go everywhere with the person you shadow. It’s not like just going to an office and having a series of meetings with other people. You literally have to accompany a person the whole time. The first person I work-shadowed in 1990 was the vice-chancellor of the University of Lancaster. I was then the principal of a college affiliated to the university and in those three days (of shadowing) I learnt more about the university than I learnt in a year of going every month to the senate meetings and reading the papers.

There are little things that you learn as a shadow. It gives you confidence about what you are already doing. I think it is quite a reinforcing activity.

In the British Council, we have a formal mentoring programme, and as a part of it, in 2006, Kartar Singh, the deputy director of the Chennai office, work-shadowed me in Hong Kong for two weeks.

You have to choose a time when you want to be observed, and I chose January, an exceptionally busy time of the year. That would have given him an insight into various things — into planning for the next year, insight into my representational role and the way that I dealt with the media locally and how I dealt with my colleagues in London.

I met him in Chennai recently and he told me he introduced some new things at his own office as a result (of shadowing me) and these proved to be quite valuable. On the whole, what people hope to get out (of it) is just an insight into somebody else’s world, from which they can then draw conclusions for their own world.

What’s the ‘right age’, so to say, to coach or mentor a child?
I suppose, informally from the very beginning. As soon as children go to school, they look to their teachers as role models. It’s not as if you, the teacher, are a mentor at that time in the formal sense of the word, but actually you are… Therefore, how you lesson the classroom, how you behave in the classroom, how you treat all pupils is very important to a child.

What are your hopes and expectations from your new assignment in India and Sri Lanka?
At the British Council, all our education work is based around mutual benefits. I haven’t arrived with a grand plan. I already feel very proud of what my colleagues here have achieved. They’ve done some fantastic work. What I would like to do is build on that success and get to know more from the policymakers, the influencers in India, what they would like to do here in collaboration with the UK.

I’ve got quite a good track record in making things happen — but I do think it’s very important to find out, to listen, to propose and reflect and to jointly design a plan and deliver. So, for example, through our International Inspirations Work — which is the legacy work for the Olympics in 2012 — we’re working here with Indian authorities — the ministry of culture and sports and with UNICEF and the UK Sport. We all bring something different to a project which is designed to increase the resources in schools, in colleges and communities, provide people more facilities for sport and develop young people who can then lead others and through that inspiration be coaches for sport and so on.

I do have a grand ambition, though, that we would be really engaged with the Indian communities about things that matter to the community, that touch the areas around English language, education, sports, the arts, climate change — that’s what we want to do.