Il British Council sbarca in Tunisia

Il British Council sbarca in Tunisia con l’obiettivo di fatto di fare sì che l’inglese scalzi il francese nell’istruzione.


Tunisia turns to a new language partner

British Council signs on to help reform English teaching ‘without undermining French’

Max de Lotbinière

Guardian Weekly, Friday 6 February 2009

Tunisia is about to launch a major drive to boost English language skills and it has called on the British Council, the UK’s international agency for education and cultural relations, to provide expertise and training.

The ministry of education and the British Council signed an agreement last month to develop the English Reform Project with the target of producing a new generation of school leavers who will be competent communicators in English, as well as in their first language, Arabic, and second language, French.

The push for English is part of a wider policy by this former French colony to transform its education system and tackle a growing problem of youth unemployment by improving vocational training and developing a workforce that will attract investment from Europe and can find work in wealthy Gulf countries.

Speaking at the signing of a memorandum of understanding in London, the minister for education, Hatem Ben Salem, said the agreement marked Tunisia’s commitment to education. “Since its independence, Tunisia has decided not to invest in arms but to invest instead in education. The budget of the ministry of education is one fifth of the whole state budget,” he said.

He added that the time had now come “to go further and work more on quality, not only in education, but also in vocational training.”

According to the British Council, the nationwide English project will start in earnest across primary and secondary schools from next year and it will run for up to 10 years, with the council acting as the ministry’s exclusive project partner and principal funder for the whole period.

Peter Skelton, head of the council in Tunisia, said that this was one of the most ambitious ELT projects undertaken by the council to date. However, he could not yet reveal how much money it would be spending.

Skelton said that the council would be looking to recruit additional funding partners from among UK businesses that operate in the region, most likely from the oil and gas sectors.

The project, which the council has been researching and developing for the last two years, will introduce existing teachers to communicative teaching methods. The ELT curriculum will be completely overhauled, with new coursebooks and materials, and a new system of exams and testing will be introduced based on the Common European Framework for Languages, the widely adopted benchmarking system for assessing foreign language competence.

Skelton said that there is recognition “at the highest level of government” that the country needs to be able to engage with the rest of the world in English, but the project is not an attempt to sideline French as the country’s second language.

“We want to shift away from English being a traditional school subject and to being a communicative vehicle to enable people to operate more effectively in English. It is possible that will have a rub-off effect on the teaching of other languages,” said Skelton.

After primary schooling in Arabic, students are taught in French in secondary school and at university. English lessons start from year five of primary school, with three hours a week of English throughout the secondary stage.

But according to Hichem Hlioui, assistant professor of English at Manouba University in Tunis, which has the country’s biggest English language department, attainment in English has been declining in recent years. While more students are studying the language at university, they are leaving secondary school with lower competency than in the past, he says.

“The curriculum and books used in secondary schools are lacking and so is the technology: most schools do not have a language lab and teachers often have to use their own tapes and materials,” said Hlioui. “Young teachers often have lower language qualifications than those of earlier generations.”

Hichem likens the English Reform Project to Europe’s economic recovery package after the second world war and calls it a “Marshall Plan” for English in Tunisia.

The project is also part of the council’s wider ambition to work with other countries in the Middle East on similar ELT initiatives. Skelton hopes these will follow soon.

Meanwhile, the council is developing a parallel programme to improve Tunisia’s vocational skills training, which will also have an English language teaching component.[addsig]

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