Man with a modernising mission

24th October 1997 at 01:00
After eight years working for an organisation which aims to steady rocky family relationships, David French, the former chief executive of Relate and the new director of the Commonwealth Institute, now has to contend with the delicate relations between 54 nations, promoting education.

Mr French, aged 50, who had early ambitions to work in the church before launching into a career with voluntary organisations, says there are good omens for the future. "Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had the Commonwealth second in the list of five points in his mission statement," says Mr French. "I believe there is a strong commitment from the Government to playing a full and active part in the Commonwealth."

Not a moment too soon, as far as the institute is concerned. Under the last government its survival seemed in doubt, and even now it is having to adopt an increasingly commercial approach.

The Foreign Office provides a third of the annual Pounds 2.8 million budget; the rest must be found from conferences and other income.

The headquarters, visited by many thousands of schoolchildren over the years, are in a magnificent site in Kensington High Street. But if school parties and other paying visitors are still to be tempted inside, Mr French believes more must be done to attract them. Its colourful displays about different countries of the Commonwealth are engaging, but some evidently date from the 1970s.

Since August, there has been a more lively attraction: Heliride is a flight simulator which takes passengers over the jungles of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. "We've taken a dramatic bit of the Commonwealth and turned it into something which is fun but educational," says Mr French.

"And we're in the first phase of producing new exhibitions on regions of the Commonwealth: they'll be more interactive, with games to play, buttons to push and much less reading."

He added: "When people think about the Commonwealth they think about past history and empire. We have to encourage people to think of it as a vibrant network of countries and organisations, relevant to their lives into the next century.

"It either has relevance to tomorrow's world or not at all."

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