Labour's chance to shine on world stage

October 24, 1997


Prime minister Tony Blair hosts the first Commonwealth summit in Britain for 20 years in Edinburgh this weekend

COMMONWEALTH leaders meeting in Edinburgh this weekend are unlikely to focus directly on education matters for more than a few minutes.

But their senior officials who made up the Committee of the Whole are likely to say more, and some of the leaders' other decisions may have long-term educational implications.

The leaders traditionally give a pat on the back to their education ministers, who have passed on various recommendations, including several to do with science and technology, from their recent meeting in Botswana.

Officials may want to stress the need to strengthen the Commonwealth of Learning, the distance-learning institution based in Vancouver that has experienced financial difficulty for three years.

They may also take up the call to encourage study of the Commonwealth in universities and schools. There is a real fear that people under 25 - half the population of the Commonwealth - have little idea what it is.

But what about the prime ministers and presidents themselves? Much will depend on the Blair factor. This is the first big international meeting that prime minister Tony Blair will chair, with potentially 52 other states attending, in an association especially influenced by Britain and other people's perceptions of Britain.

For Mr Blair this will kick-start a year of extraordinary international activity, when Britain successively chairs the European Council of Ministers, the G8 and the Euro-Asian summit.

It would be surprising if Blair does not use this opportunity to demonstrate the Labour government's commitment to the Commonwealth and to shout his cry of "education, education, education" on to a wider stage.

Information technology is a potential unifier. Schools and universities around the Commonwealth could get "wired" through a coalition involving the Commonwealth, aid donors and the private sector.

Another link would be if Mr Blair offers to host the education ministers' meeting in the year 2000. Britain was last host to the first in 1959. As the conference has evolved, with an exhibition and parallel convention alongside, its potential has greatly increased. Many education bodies in Britain are pressing this case, and the rest of the Commonwealth would support it.

The special theme for this year's summit is trade, investment and development. Although the Commonwealth is not an economic unit, there is growing recognition among developed and developing members that its "common business culture" confers advantages in the globalised economy.

At the start of the week, which ends with the summit, there will be the first-ever Commonwealth Business Forum in London, bringing together finance and trade ministers and the private sector in a gathering loosely modelled on the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Many countries are hoping that the special theme will reap dividends, although previous Commonwealth communiques on economic subjects have had little impact.

It is likely that there will be some spin-offs for education which will strengthen vocational studies and Commonwealth corporation involving the private sector. With some universities facing a continuing economic crisis, especially in Africa, it will be hard to ignore basic issues on infrastructure even though it may seem more attractive to refer to MBAs and enterprise and science parks.

Human rights, especially the setbacks in Nigeria and Sierra Leone to the Harare Declaration, the 1991 mission statement on human rights, will loom large in Edinburgh. Both military regimes will continue to be suspended and the Commonwealth will break new ground in effectively maintaining recognition for the overthrown President Kabbah of Sierra Leone.

It is ironic that he and ex-Colonel Rabuka of the readmitted Fiji will attend Edinburgh together. When Rabuka overthrew Dr Bavaadra in two coups in 1987, Britain and other Commonwealth governments would hardly give the overthrown Fiji prime minister the time of day. But the Commonwealth has changed dramatically in the past decade.

In an analogy to the treatment of South Africa under apartheid, there may be educational spinoffs such as pressure for a support programme for exiled Nigerian and Sierra Leonean students and academics whose lives have been blighted by military dictatorships.

Commonwealth leaders may also call for a celebration of the jubilee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next year with a review and a strengthening of human rights in school curricula. This follows agreement among ministers of education in Botswana.

Unprecedented non-governmental activity for a Commonwealth summit is expected in Edinburgh. A trainload of 600 Sri Lankan Tamils is coming from London to stage a cultural event that will have strong political overtones.

The British government is supporting the Royal Commonwealth Society, which is running a Commonwealth Centre for NGOs in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. There will be strings of conferences and workshops running in parallel.

This is the first Commonwealth summit in Britain for 20 years and there is unlikely to be another here for as long again. The real test of its effectiveness is whether the interest over the next week or so will be sustained. That may depend not only on its impact on public education, but in the educational follow-up.

Richard Bourne is a specialist in Commonwealth affairs at the Institute of Education.

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