When, following the intervention of Charles Clarke MP in June 2004, the British Council was finally nudged into a response to our complaints relating to their conduct during a cooperative agreement, a report was produced by John Whitehead at the behest of the Director General Sir David Green. Although our original complaint pre-dated by several months the launch of the new dedicated English course section on the Education UK website, John Whitehead’s report sets out to disprove the allegation that the British Council had “plagiarised” the English in Britain website – an allegation that, by definition since our complaint pre-dated their launch, we did not and could not have made. So we didn’t take it too seriously, and pointed out their error. The report, the subject of which was identified unilaterally and which was produced without any contact with us, strains as it seeks to disprove the supposed allegation, and arguably does a pretty good job of explaining why such an allegation, if it had in fact been made, might have been a sore point.
To construct the British Council case the report identifies 4 points of difference:
1) that the English in Britain site had a larger number of course categories than Education UK, at the time of the report 40 compared with 13 (although the first edition of the Education UK website in fact had none);
2) that the Education UK site used different regions from English in Britain (to which matter we return below);
3) that Education UK uses price bands (per week) rather than specific prices (per week) as in English in Britain (which is a tad academic considering that the first edition of Education UK had no such price information);
4) that Education UK had searchable fields that were not searchable in English in Britain and vice versa (which was immaterial in that any field can be made searchable, and quite incorrect anyway since Education UK had – and has – no fields which are not present and searchable in the English in Britain database. The significant thing was of course the database design similarities).
It is the regions issue (point 2 above) that we look at here. One relatively minor aspect of the massive row that broke out when the Education UK site first went live in early January 2002 was that the regions on that site were unlikely to be recognisable by overseas students – regions such as Humberside, East Midlands, Shropshire, Rutland, Lothian etc. It was, understandably, felt that such regional definitions were, for this purpose at least, obscure, and in any case the EFL sector had by this stage got used to the regions employed in the English in Britain suite.
It happens, however, that in the spring of 2002 we at English in Britain were persuaded, notably by the good people of Devon, that the South West should be a region in its own right, and further enquiry suggested that Central England, by including for example Shrewsbury in the same region as Colchester, was too crudely drawn. Institutions in other regions were likewise contacted and consulted, and thus we refined our regional system, with the result that they are indeed different, and better, today. For the British Council to refer to our subsequent change as key evidence (in what is surely a very weak hand) that the Education UK website was not “plagiarised” looks odd and, we think, raises more questions than answers. But happily we have got an answer to one of them.
In the illustration [click to enlarge] will be seen two maps of Britain. The one on the left shows the regions as applied in all English in Britain publications at the time – in our guide, on our CD and on our web site - while the one on the right shows the Education UK regions as they emerged in their revised form in 2002. If you can’t see any differences in the way the regions are defined, it’s because there aren’t any. So how did this development come about? The British Council’s response to all our points regarding the similarities between our respective databases post the early 2002 catastrophe was to say that their choices came about as a function of “independent research”.
Well, we have just uncovered a report of the “Small Schools Meeting” that took place in Manchester on January 14th 2002, where it is recorded that the British Council staff member convening the meeting – not so coincidentally the same one who was formally responsible for liaising with us over English in Britain – is reported to have assured all those present that when the new Education UK site would be launched later that year [and I quote] “the regions will be altered to be similar to those in the English in Britain guide”. On January 14th 2002 the original Education UK web site had been up for one week only, so either the British Council’s “independent research” was commissioned, completed and acted on in very short order, or else this has to be another case where they “practise to deceive”. Either way, given this background, for a British Council report to point to the regions on the two sites as evidence of difference was grossly disingenuous. Perhaps the British Council would now like to contact Charles Clarke and issue a correction.