A Conversation with Leigh Turner

Jim Zellmer: Good afternoon, Leigh Let’s begin with your education.

Leigh Turner: Like increasing numbers of people in today’s modern world, I grew up in several countries, in Nigeria, in Britain, then again in Lesotho, in southern Africa, and then again in Britain.

I went to several different, as we would say in English, schools and then to university. I was at a school in Swaziland called Waterford Kamhlaba School, a boarding school, for a year and a half, a very fascinating and interesting time.

Then, I was in a school in Manchester called Manchester Grammar School for most of my secondary education, as we would say in Britain. Then, from there, I went to the University of Cambridge and did a three-year bachelor’s degree in Geography. That was it. After that, I was 21. I went off and started work.

Jim: Do you have a perspective on how that movement, let’s say, improved or hindered your education as you grew up? What’s your take on that?

Leigh: It all depends on your degree of family stability and the degree to which you are fortunate in having good schools, good teachers, and good classmates. It’s very difficult to be deterministic about what makes a good education.

I was extremely fortunate in having a peripatetic childhood and going to primary school in Lesotho with a bunch of kids of all different nationalities, African children, European children, American children, different people.

Then, going to a school in Waterford Kamhlaba School in Swaziland which was very much a place which was set up in the years of apartheid in South Africa as a place where children from all different ethnic backgrounds could go to a high-quality school together and learn the British educational exams.

That gave me a great deal of insight into different people, the size of the world, and the fact that one country is not it. It’s very easy to forget that if you’ve not had the good fortune to travel widely. It’s easy to think that you’re in your city, and that’s the world, or you’re in your country, and that’s the world.

When you travel around the world as a child, you see that there are many countries, there are many different ways of living, there are many different outlooks on life. That’s a very important part of anyone’s education.

I then was very fortunate in having five or six years of continuous education in one school, in Manchester. I do think that for many young people, stability of education is a positive.

I grew up moving around the world. With my kids, we made a real effort to try to arrange our postings in such a way that the children could stay in a limited number of schools, for as long as possible.

In fact, I even arranged postings so that we could stay in Berlin in eight years in a row so the children could stay in the same school. That seems to have served them very well.

Jim: What languages did you pick up along the way? What about your kids? Obviously, when I look at your postings and your tweets, you’ve taken the time to learn the local language. What are your thoughts on that?

Leigh: I was lucky enough to study German and French when I was at school in Manchester, at high school, as you would say in America. I found the grammar extremely difficult.

I have a famous story about trying to learn my German grammar as I moved up towards a certain public exam. At each stage, I got 0 out of 30 for my grammar, 3 times in a row.

After the final occasion where I got 0 out of 30, with a public exam looming, my teacher said to me, “Leigh, if you make just a few less mistakes, you might be able to get a mark in this part of the exam.”

Even though that happened, I was able to pass those exams and indeed score reasonably well in those exams because I spent time doing what we would call an “exchange,” which is where a child, usually between 11 and 16, is sent off from their own family to stay with a family in a foreign country, to live with that family for three weeks, to speak only the language of that country for three weeks, and to socialize, maybe to go to school with the child that they’re staying with.

There’s always an exchange child at the other end, who, ideally, is somebody of similar age to you. Then, that child comes back to your country, and the reverse situation takes place.

I did this when I was 12. I went to Paris, at age 12, and stayed with a family who lived within eyesight of the Arc de Triomphe. I remember well waking up on my first morning and trying to think of something that I could say in French.

My mind was blank. Eventually, I managed to say, “Le soleil brille.” The sun is shining. From that start, after three weeks of staying with a family, I came back speaking simple, fluent French, after three weeks.

Similarly, German, I did a German exchange. I went out there with only the most simple grasp of German. I found after three weeks of German exchange, I was speaking much better. Indeed, I did repeated German exchanges.

By the time I took my final public school exams, when I was 17, I was actually reasonably fluent in French and German. Those were my first two languages. They were learned partly by school study and partly by these home stays in the countries concerned.

Subsequently, when I joined the Foreign Office, I was posted to Russia. I needed to speak Russian for that job. On that occasion, we had a different approach.

The British Foreign Service is very keen on teaching its officers foreign languages. We think that’s an important part of the training and an important part of doing the job.

I was sent on a nine-month, full-time Russian course, which was pretty mind-bending. I should say, in the Foreign Office, when you join, they give you a test to measure your aptitude to learn foreign languages.

True to my history of my German experience from doing my [inaudible 07:51] , my initial public school exams, I scored very badly on this language aptitude test and was told I should go off maybe and learn Afrikaans and some easy languages.

In fact, for a series of reasons, I was going to Moscow. I spent nine months learning Russian full-time, including a seven-week stay in Moscow, in 1992.

By the time I finished the course, I was able to pass the relevant exam. In my subsequent three-year posting in Moscow, I was able to use Russian a great deal. By that time, I spoke it really quite fluently and could read Russian as well.


Leigh: Go on.

Jim: This is something that our friends have discussed over the years, the ability of children to learn and pick up those languages much faster than when you were posted in Moscow.

The amount of time you discussed was obviously extensive. (Presumably) the depth of your language understanding and learning, I assume, was much deeper with Russian.

What was your experience as you were older? Today, learning Turkish , how long does it take? If you took about three weeks when you’re 12 years old in Paris, to have some level of fluency, how long did it take you to have that similar level when you arrived in Istanbul?

Leigh: When I knew I was coming to Turkey, I was, at that stage, still living and working in Ukraine. I was Ambassador, in Kiev, from 2008 to 2012. In Kiev, I made a big effort to learn Ukrainian. Both Ukrainian and Russian are widely spoken.

I had a couple of weeks of immersion there. I didn’t pick it up as quickly as I did French when I was 12. That’s for sure. I did pick up a reasonable level of Ukrainian.

Then, when I heard I was coming to Istanbul, I immediately got out a self-study, computer-based Turkish course and spent five or six months really working hard on that. I actually kept a record of the 127 hours I spent by myself with the computer language course learning Turkish.

By the time I arrived in Turkey, August 2012, I was able, thanks to this course, to speak a little bit of straightforward Turkish. I then had five weeks [inaudible 10:35] staying with someone here in Turkey, going to lessons four hours every day of the week, except weekends.

By the end of that, I could speak very simple Turkish, but by no means as well as I could speak French after three weeks staying with a family in France in 1970-71.

Jim: Well, we’re all getting older there. As you think of all these experiences you’ve had, both as a parent, professionally, and then obviously traveling, what do you think it means to be educated today and tomorrow? What does that mean in the age of Google, smart phones, and digital electronic [inaudible 11:21] ?

Leigh: I am no great educational expert, but I think that there are, in education, two things which you have to balance, one is what I might call learning by route or drilling, where you accumulate facts that you know and clearly there has been a move away from this.

This is the traditional way of learning things, people reciting their timetables and so on in schools in Victorian England [inaudible 11:58] images, and as life has gone on, people have focused more on having the ability to find things out, which clearly is the way to go these days.

You need to be able to know where to acquire information, know how to assimilate and organize information, know how to manage the almost infinite amount of information that is rightly available there on your smart phone in your pocket.

I think there are those two elements to education, one is knowing stuff and the other thing is knowing how to find out and organize stuff.

I think you have to have a certain amount of both in order to have a successful education. If we look at some countries in Far East which have a traditional route learning, they have really effective educational systems.

On the other hand, if you look at some countries like UK or the US, where there is more of a tradition of learning how to find things out, they don’t score so highly at least the far East countries, for example, mathematical ability, but on the other hand, they are very good at creative industries.

Clearly, it might be unique to have a judicious balance of both. You simply cannot learn a language without learning vocabulary and without learning a bit of grammar. It’s never going to work. At the same time, if you don’t know how to use a dictionary and don’t know how to use the Internet, you’re going to make learning a language much more difficult for yourself.

Jim: Again, [inaudible 13:38] all this, what should young people know today? Obviously, you’ve tried [inaudible 13:42] to your children. (Talking) about parents, what should young people know today?

Leigh: I’m a big fan of that balance I was talking about just now. The hardest thing for me as a parent is the balance between giving your children the space they need to develop their own views on who they are as individuals and being able to make informed decisions about how to live their lives.

If parents don’t give their children that and they miss to take the important opportunities, that’s on the one side, giving them freedom, allowing them to develop as individuals, on the other hand, providing them with the framework within which they can establish that identity.

I think the framework part is important too. If you don’t have any rules in the house about when you go to bed, when you get up, when you eat your meals together, how you should behave in the family home, then the child is going to find it hard to adjust to a world which is based on certain norms of behavior in any society.

It’s balancing those two between your [inaudible 15:09] approach to do anything you want to do, finding themselves, and the kind of [inaudible 15:17] the new millennium of people really need to have the skill they need to get a job and the discipline they need to be able to hold down the job in an area where we have increasing global competition between countries.

If your kid from a rich country isn’t able to compete with the hungry, dynamic, well-trained kids from countries, which have not been so blessed by history as your country, then they’re going to find it hard to compete in the global markets.

Jim: Speaking of that, you’re a keen observer of the world as it is. It’s remarkable I have to say, I have very much enjoyed your tweets and writing.

Taking those observations, how might you compare and contrast the education system, let’s say the software, the raw materials that the different countries you’ve been in provide their kids from UK to France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and now Turkey?

Leigh: Well, you risk getting very political when you [inaudible 16:40] one education system is different from or better than another. I would just say that what really is [inaudible 16:49] is that I think being to high school in Britain, France, or Germany, they run very different.

Similarly, having been a diplomat in Britain, having seen the systems that operate in France and in Germany, it is striking how utterly different the training given to diplomats from France, Germany, Britain is.

For example, in Germany, you have to have studied quite often law, ideally international law, then you join the foreign ministry and you have a two-year training course with a group of people who joined at the same time as you.

Before you even sit down, there’s day’s full work.

In France, you have to go to a “grande école”, which will get you into the upper reaches of civil service. Often, you have to go to another specialized school to give you a chance to get into the grande école in the first place. They are that highly [inaudible 17:47] exams are that difficult.

In Britain, you get into the Foreign Service by taking the public exam, which is pretty difficult and which involves written exams and assessment centers. Then, on your first day, usually you sit down and start work. No training at all.

Why am I saying this? Because nobody would say that French, or British, or German diplomats were better than each other. I know many great brilliant diplomats from France, Germany, and Britain. They have had completely different training, yet they are all excellent diplomats.

I think the point of what I’m saying is that very different educational systems can be successful. It’s all really about having a good basic structure, a good concept of what kind of education you are trying to deliver. Then, having assiduous, well-trained teachers who know what they’re talking about, and having of course children who would be supported by parents to help them to learn.

Jim: It’s struck me because I have dealt with some very talented software developers in the old Soviet Bloc. Is it the long emphasis on science, technology and math [inaudible 19:24] in that space?

Did you have any observations on their system, the Russian system, the Ukrainian? Did you interact with the education systems in those places at all?

Leigh: I must say that I have many Russian friends and colleagues, many Ukrainian friends and colleagues. I have often been struck by the excellence of their educational systems, their knowledge. Many people from Russia and Ukraine, who go off to the UK to study there, are very high achievers.

Although, I would say that on the whole their system are more based on root learning, repetition and, what some in the West might think, a rather old-fashioned educational system. But mind you, they work very well.

I remember the first time when I was learning Russian, coming face to face with a gentleman who introduced himself as a soviet, a naval interpreter in the Soviet Navy who turned up in the UK for some reason. This was in 1991.

He spoke English not only with complete fluency, but with a beautiful English accent, and he’d never been outside the Soviet Union. I had to take my hat off to that level of educational attainment in the elite systems of the former Soviet Union.

Similarly, here in Turkey there are many excellent quality educational establishments. You can always look at a system and think of a better way to organize it and to improve it, but I think we should always be very careful to assuming that we have the answer that some other people don’t.

Jim: I completely agree with that. [laughs] It’s interesting because, as a student pointed out earlier regarding the learn-by-rote [inaudible 21:26] versus the (discovery method), it is striking to observe how successful that approach was in some of those countries.

As you traveled, do you have a sense that some of these countries there is a more egalitarian state or do you see (a wide range of experiences & quality)?

Leigh: I do think that there is a role for central government in any country in maintaining educational standards.

On the one hand, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and I’d find intellectually stimulating the idea that we should let the best schools to slug it out, work out who has the best system and let the marketplace decide. But I’m not sure that we’ve got time for that, when it comes to education.

I think some role for central government in setting standards, and deciding curricula, and helping educational systems to provide the education that business and society need in that country is essential. They say fair is great, but we haven’t got time to leave that to operate through the educational systems. We can’t afford to have kids who are failed by educational systems.

Jim: I have a last question. Let’s take the time machine, Dr. Who, back, to when you were 18 or coming out of Manchester. What would you study today if you were 18…? The same thing? What would you do?

Leigh: I tend to think that I’ve been an exceptional fortunate individual in my life.

I’ve had a rich and privileged range of experiences. From hitchhiking around the United States for seven weeks when I was 21, starting in White Plains, New York and making it as far as North Carolina, and San Francisco, and British Columbia or Canada, and all the way back to White Plains, one of the great experiences of my life, to visiting the Island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic with my job, to having all kinds of terrific friends and relationships.

Having visited many countries and seen many different ways of doing things, I would in no way claim that my life is perfect, but it’s been terrific so far. I certainly wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Having said all that, my advice to anybody who is just beginning their university education would be to really take the education seriously. You’ve only got one chance to accumulate the best possible set of skills at the university. If you don’t do it now, you are going to find it very difficult to do it later.

As I said earlier on, you need to balance that inquisitive and applied approach to learning with, at the same time, having some fun and getting out in the air and exploring things, meeting people, trying some things that maybe your parents wouldn’t be all that crazy about, and exploring life a little bit.

It’s the balance between those two, the yin and yang of educational development if you like, that I think young people need to explore.

Jim: That’s wonderful. Is there anything else you want to add? We really appreciate your time today.

Leigh: Not really, except that I would encourage all of your readers or listeners to check out my Twitter account which is @LeighTurnerFCO, and also my work blog which has my thoughts about life in Turkey, and finally my personal writing blog where you have the journalism that I’ve done over the years, four years as a journalist working in Berlin when I was there, and also some of my fiction writing, which I’m very proud of.

Jim: Yes. I will include links to that, definitely.

Twitter @leighturnerFCO

Official blog: http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/leighturner/

Personal writing blog (short stories, novels, journalism): rleighturner.com