The Manchester skyline, one of Laura Barnard's illustrations installed in our English school in Georgia.
Gregory Nash, the British Council’s Director Arts Wider Europe, explains how the work of a UK illustrator and several writers found its way to the walls of our new teaching centre in Tbilisi.
I’ve never been one for evening classes. My mother was a school cleaner and going with her to work at the end of the day I was struck by the sadness of the abandoned classrooms: the chairs stacked on desks, the building empty of inhabitants. As an adult I have limited my learning to nine to five; with the exception, once, of a ballroom dancing class, which I quit when I realised that my fellow students were there more for the romance than the rumba.
So when plans to open a new teaching centre in Tbilisi were announced I asked British Council Georgia director Zaza Purtseladze to work with me to make the classrooms animated, inspiring spaces that reflected the energy and creativity of the UK. He was characteristically enthusiastic: market research had told him that a ‘feeling of connection to the UK’ was a key incentive for enrolment among the 18-24 year old target group.
We named the classrooms Belfast, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester. Our design team commissioned UK illustrator Laura Barnard to bring together the iconic buildings and spaces of each place in a series of intricate cityscapes. Our literature team found authors connected to the cities, and Ron Butlin, Gillian Clarke, Glenn Patterson, Adam O’ Riordan and Bethan Roberts gave permission for extracts from their work to sit alongside the graphics. At the entrance to the centre a hand-drawn map of the British Isles welcomes students in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Celtic.
The Tbilisi teaching centre is the first to open in our region in twenty years. Eight hundred learners now study there, not in characterless rooms, but surrounded by enchanting drawings and inspiring words. Student feedback is good: Katie told us, ‘It’s great to learn English in Brighton,’ while Archil ‘never knew that Cardiff could be so picturesque’. We plan to replicate the installations in new centres as we open them, commissioning more cities as we grow.
What next for Georgia? Well, I thought a ballroom dancing studio named, as you might expect, Blackpool.