The Tunisian Ministry of Education and Training signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the British Council in London Tuesday, to prepare for a huge project aimed at English language teaching reform in all state primary and secondary schools in Tunisia. The MoU signing ceremony was attended by Hatem Ben Salem, the Tunisian Minister of Education and Training; and Lord Kinnock, Chair of the British Council and former Leader of the Labour Party.
The project, known as 'English for the Future', seeks to design and introduce new English language materials and course books for primary and secondary education in order to produce output standards that are within the Common European Framework for Languages, and to equip learners of English with better vocational language abilities.
During the ceremony, Lord Kinnock stressed the Council's commitment to Tunisia.
"Our commitment to Tunisia, to education specifically, and within that to English language teaching and training is very very strong indeed and we would like to do much more of it," noted Lord Kinnock.
The English language is not only vital for employability, but "the fact is: an international language can be a medium of tolerance and comprehension," Lord Kinnock said.
The Tunisian Minister underscored his country's focus on improving education.
"Since its independence, Tunisia has decided not to invest in arms but to invest instead in education," said Ben Salem.
"The budget for the Ministry of Education is one fifth of the whole state budget," he added.
However, the Tunisian education system had mainly invested to enable people to have access to education, noted Ben Salem, adding that now is the time "to go further and work more on quality, not only in education but also in vocational training."
Tunisia, which boasts of around 2,200,000 students in primary and secondary schools, has the burden of 100, 000 high diploma holders who are unemployed, prompting more focus on vocational training, where mastering the English language is key.
"Now there is a target; to have students go to vocational training," said Ben Salem, adding that learners would not benefit by finding jobs in Tunisia only, but also by being employed in Arab Gulf States.
"Ministers in the Gulf are asking for experts from Tunisia who are skilled in English," noted Ben Salem.
The project also aims to focus on training Tunisian teachers of English to reach a certain level of expertise, especially since there has been an increase in the number of English language teachers and students.
"The Tunisian President Ben Ali had decided to impose teaching English for sixth year primary school children, which was revolutionary in Tunisia where people are accustomed to French. So the new teachers will need more training," explained Ben Salem.
The project initiative will begin by assessing the current situation of English language teaching in Tunisia before planning to set out a clear feasible strategy.
But the Tunisian Minister is optimistic that the project's success will make it a positive model for neighbouring countries.
Preparations for the project have already begun.
"Just over a year ago we had a three person scoping mission - distinguished consultants from the UK - who worked with a team from the Ministry and looked at the whole situation of English language teaching, root and branch," said Peter Skelton, British Council Director.
"The team produced a very weighty report," said Skelton, which will be the basis for work on the way forward, adding that the project could last as long as 8 years "as it is one of the biggest investments the British Council has made anywhere."
"It is being launched in Tunisia as a pilot not only for the Near East and North Africa region but for the rest of the world," explained Skelton, to see "what can be done using the British Council's new products and services."
"The absolute key in this is sustainability," stressed Skelton.
When asked about the significance of this project in comparison to previous British Council initiatives in Tunisia, Skelton said the Council "was involved with one off projects, good at the time but did not have a lasting impact. Now we're looking at long term impact and sustainability."
In Kongo Times, 27 Jan 2009. Here is the link to the original story. Another nail in the coffin for the French language in Africa.