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Ex-policeman gets new beat
Published on Friday, 29 Jan 2010
British Council director Peter Upton says 'the art form is reading the landscape and culture and knowing what is going to work.
Photo: Dickson Lee

With his recent appointment as director of the British Council in Hong Kong, Peter Upton is back where it all started. A professional journey that took him into teaching, government policy work and building cultural relationships began in the mid-1970s as a young police inspector in Hong Kong.

"In some ways, my career progression has been quite eccentric," says Upton, whose last two postings were in Thailand and Nigeria. "But it has been a continual quest for skills enhancement while being unafraid to take risks and actually enjoying what I do."

After a degree in England and a scholarship year at the University of Michigan, the main attraction of police work in Hong Kong was the chance to do something very different. Arriving in 1976, Upton was assigned to the then general investigation office, checking into reported crimes, following up leads and dealing with all the different sections of the community.

"It was an excellent opportunity to work in a multicultural society and learn Cantonese," he says. "But after just under two years, I decided policing wasn't for me. It was a question of asking was this something I wanted to do for 20 to 30 years, and I decided not."

Instead, he returned to Britain and went into teaching. The switch was an early sign of themes that later defined Upton's career: making the most of transferable skills, playing an active part in change management and being prepared to break new ground.

In particular, he came to see how effective teaching and new ideas could dramatically change young people's lives. The key, he realised, while working his way up through the system, was not to let students accept what they had been given. To liberate thinking and help people succeed, the teacher's role was to develop existing skill sets, look for other strengths and focus on them.

"Not many students really want a miserable experience in school," Upton says. "You have to break through by creating a vision, building on the success and picking off the failures through working with people in a structured way."

Putting theory into practice, he was able, as the youngest head teacher in Britain, to turn around a failing school, overseeing a revival in ambitions and results. It was first a matter of transforming attitudes, giving self-esteem and showing people that everyone has the ability to achieve.

In the early 1990s, when principal of both a school and community college in Tavistock, western England, Upton did that by introducing compulsory Japanese for all 11-year-olds. Seen by some as a radical move, it proved a big success. No other school had Japanese on the curriculum, students felt special and it became accepted that there were new subjects to learn and different ways to teach.

"We took parents, the local authority and the government with us," he says. "It was exciting, interesting and scary. The thing is you are making decisions about people's futures, so you don't go into it lightly. But we unified the whole community and changed the [teaching] environment with a much more flexible approach. We broke all sorts of new ground with laptops, interactive whiteboards, introducing the IB [International Baccalaureate] and an Anglo-Italian production of Romeo and Juliet, so adults and students could learn in a holistic way, not just from books."

To impart that experience more widely, Upton was recruited to run a government agency responsible for the development of about 600 schools across England. It involved policy initiatives, curriculum issues, languages strategy and leadership - and was a marked contrast to the direct engagement of the classroom.

"It was enjoyable in a different way because you miss the immediacy of the interaction," he says. "In a school, you can make a change and see the consequences quite immediately. When you operate on a broader canvas, you don't have the fun of seeing it on the ground."

Headhunted for the British Council in 1999, his initial brief was to streamline the organisation's "education offer" and make it more focused. Departments and teams were overlapping in terms of courses and delivery. Upton approached it as a "classic change management situation", during which he also came to appreciate how the council's four main areas - English language teaching, administering exams, policy development for higher education and building international relationships - were interlinked.

"In the British Council, we move between work, national and international cultures," he says. "If you are changing behaviour and bringing about innovation, the art form is reading the landscape and culture and knowing what is going to work. There is an element of nuance and a range of styles, but you have to work within the cultural frame to bring people on side."

His priority here is not change but building on past success and continuing to open doors. In broad terms, the aim is to ensure long-lasting relationships between Hong Kong and Britain by responding to needs, advising and listening. This will still be done through such things as the arts festival, courses in English and work in higher education.

"I am in a unique and privileged position whereby the things we do really matter," he says. "We are very successful, but there is still much more to do."

 


Baker and biker 

  • Is a keen pastry cook, something he also regards as "good therapy"
  • Gained a private pilot's licence and has flown microlights
  • A personal ambition is to walk the length of the Great Wall
  • As a "born-again biker", he has plans to own a Ducati
  • Intends to enrol for an online MA in Chinese law

 

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