About the project

An introductory message

Mark Robson, Director, English and Examinations

It is already clear from this project that the British Council has a long and proud history in the area of English language test development and delivery around the world. This project will bring that history to life and demonstrate our position as a leading contributor to the world of assessment, which is in turn a vital element of the British Council’s cultural relations’ mission.
This project reinforces the sense of pride we at the British Council have in our assessment work and builds an awareness not only of our past endeavours in this field, but also underlines the confidence in the contributions we believe we can make in the future. In the past few years, we have reaffirmed our place among the world’s leading test development institutions. This project contextualises our development and demonstrates to our international partners and clients, the importance of tradition and trust in this profession.

Origins of the project

Prof. Barry O’Sullivan, Head of Assessment Research and Development 

The inspiration to investigate and chart a history of the British Council’s work in assessment came from a number of sources. One of these was Cyril Weir’s excellent book, written for Cambridge English Assessment, on the history of that organisation’s work in the area of assessment, from its beginnings in 1913 to the present day. Cyril’s work focused very much on the theoretical principles that underpinned their various tests over the years. Within that volume, there were a number of references to the British Council’s involvement with Cambridge, and most interestingly to the agreement between the two institutions, signed in 1941, in which the British Council agreed to provide the expertise to help Cambridge develop English examinations.
The other main source of inspiration came from my own involvement with the British Council over the years. Many years ago Cyril and myself spent a wonderful evening with Alan Moller, shooting the breeze and talking about the ‘good old days’ of language testing in the British Council. After that, I went on to work on projects such as the assessment element of the Peacekeeping English Project, the EXAVER project in Mexico and later the International Language Assessment, a placement test for use across the British Council teaching centres. All these things were rattling around in my head when I met with Cyril in the late summer of 2013. By the end of that get-together, we had an idea and a plan. The rest, as they say, is history…

Methodology of the project

Melissa Downing, Project Archivist

Due to the diversity and collaborative nature of the British Council’s work, the records documenting its history are spread amongst multiple repositories. The main sources of information relating to the British Council’s involvement in English Language Assessment are the National Archives, Cambridge Assessment Archive, Warwick ELT Archive as well as the Council’s collection of current records at Iron Mountain, an offsite storage facility. One of the main aims of this project from an archival perspective is to gain intellectual control of those records not in the Council’s physical custody. We hope to achieve this by amalgamating descriptions of all relevant records on this public facing website as well as an offline database. These records will be enriched by placing them in a network of interrelated content which includes information about relevant people, organisations, projects and events. In addition to historical records the website will include bibliographical references, images, digitised archives and links to other online resources. This resource differs from traditional catalogues and finding aids by presenting the archival material both in context and as context.
<link to browse the database>

The Information Knowledge Management perspective

Jan Booth, Head of Archives and Records, British Council

The Information and Knowledge Management (IKM) team has a wide range of responsibilities within the British Council, including the support of records management; information sharing; compliance with information legislation; and management of the Council’s archive collections, which are held in a variety of locations <link to ‘Our History’>.
By telling the story of the Council’s important role in the development of English Language testing, the project also demonstrates the wealth of its historical records. This raises awareness of the archives to both an external audience and (perhaps more significantly) to the organisation itself. Entrepreneurial and forward thinking, perhaps the Council is sometimes in danger of forgetting its past achievements. But that is instead what this project is built upon.
Archives are not the most obvious of organisational assets for the Council. Their physical dispersal means they can be inaccessible; and the relevant information takes time to find in such a large and diverse collection: if only staff in bygone years had considerately written ‘relating to English Language Assessment’ – or even better ‘of no possible relevance to Assessment’ on their records! But only through the archives could the story of the Council’s achievements in assessment be told. Thus they are an indispensable business asset.
This project showcases how the preservation of an organisation’s past can support its future.

Interested in learning more about the British Council and testing?

Watch the presentation, Tests, Testers and Testing: The British Council and language testing 1941-2013, by the project’s Senior Researcher Professor Cyril Weir for the symposium New Directions English: Language Assessment in China held in November 2013 in Beijing, China.