Cherry Gough

29th March 2013 at 00:00
The British Council's director in Libya discusses the country's school system, the creation of a new curriculum that is not based on Gaddafi's The Green Book and which myth is furthest from the truth. Interview by Henry Hepburn. Photography by James Glossop

How did you find your time in Libya as a child?

I loved it. My father was head of the RAF school in Tobruk. I hated coming back to Britain - it was cold and miserable. They asked me which was my favourite Beatle and I didn't have a clue. I'd always wanted to go back.

How was Gaddafi viewed?

When I first went there in 2010 you obviously couldn't talk about Gaddafi. It seemed people were putting up with things; that they were reasonably well off and it wasn't that bad a place - but when the revolution started, it released this phenomenal anger. They felt they weren't respected by the rest of the world, that it was embarrassing to be Libyan.

What is life like in Libya now?

We were worried prior to the second anniversary of the revolution, in February. People started getting concerned that there would be major demonstrations. They felt the government wasn't moving quickly enough. And there was fear that some pro-Gaddafi people, or more extremist groups, would create havoc. But it became clear that the government was getting a grip on security. In fact, the weekend was a very joyful celebration.

You've talked about myths of living in Libya - which is furthest from the truth?

We're not surrounded by militias roaming the streets - far from it. Even when they were there, they were generally well-educated, polite young men, who were trying to protect the revolution. There was a complete vacuum, so it's remarkable how the country kept itself in order. You can imagine in Britain, if you had no police, no army, and lots of weapons around, what the situation would be. I'm not saying tragic things didn't happen, but it could have been so much worse.

And there's a strong social democratic tendency?

Yes. There are, in certain parts, very small groups of extremists, but basically everybody we meet looks to Europe.

Isn't there an ambitious scheme of postgraduate scholarships?

The latest we heard was that 8,000 scholarships for postgraduate study were going to be announced. If their English is good enough, people head to the UK; the attraction is phenomenal. I've often heard people say it's easier to be Muslim in the UK than in Libya.

Do many head to Scotland?

The only Scottish university in the top 10 for Libyan students is Heriot-Watt.

How is Scotland perceived?

The weather's not a problem, because many go to Newcastle. I think it's perceived positively, but I'm not sure there's a sense of the distinctions between different parts of the UK.

What does your job entail?

Education is big for us - higher and vocational. We run a lot of programmes. Oil and gas education has been well funded, but Libya wants to diversify into health, nursing, construction, hospitality and agri-business. One constant struggle is to get people to work with us in Libya - there's still a perception that it's dangerous. But there's this great tradition of welcoming foreigners. If you go to the souk (bazaar) in Tripoli, they're not interested in you - Libyans have much more money than we have. You're not there as a customer, but as a guest.

What do Libyans expect from education?

They expect the country to pay for their education, they don't expect to have to go private - it's a rich country - and that it should be of the highest international standard.

What state is the school system in?

A pretty bad one. It's not just teaching; it's the physical schools. They need to be completely re-equipped, they have nothing. And the previous curriculum was based on The Green Book - Gaddafi's views on how things should be done.

How is the new curriculum shaping up?

They're starting with a blank slate. They would like to cover things such as citizenship, but there's no history of it. And there was no arts education, but they realise creativity may be a future area for Libya.

And teacher employment?

There was huge over-employment previously. Lots of people are employed as teachers but don't go into schools. It's the old Soviet thing - people are given a job and a salary but don't do anything. They are thinking about how to bring those people back into schools, or retrain them.

You've worked in some interesting places at interesting times. Were you in China at the time of Tiananmen Square?

Yes. That was my first evacuation - we were given four hours to leave the country by the British Council. I was working in a university, training teachers from deprived rural areas. They got very involved in Tiananmen. They went to the square and we were manning the barricades.

Of all the countries you've lived in, which educational idea left the biggest mark?

The involvement of the community in the Bolivarian schools in the poorest areas of Venezuela. Libyan parents have no interaction with school and British schools don't really interact with the community. In Venezuela, the mothers come in and cook lunch. When you have to paint the school, the families do it. Parents feel they have got a right to come into school and do stuff.


Born - Somerset, 1956

Education - Primary school included two years in Libya; Hertfordshire and Essex High School for Girls; English and linguistics, University College London; postgraduate teacher training; master's at the University of Edinburgh

Career - English language teacher in Algeria; ran university teacher-training programmes in China and Poland; various British Council posts, followed by roles in Poland (deputy director) and Venezuela (director).

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