Century-old teaching programme suspended after spending cuts

For more than a century, British students have been travelling abroad to teach in foreign classrooms as language assistants.

The tradition could now be in jeopardy after the British Council, which runs the programme, was forced to suspend next year's selection process following George Osborne's budget cuts.

J K Rowling, Fiona Bruce and Angus Deayton are among the scheme's notable alumni, while Alastair Campbell, who admitted to not being a "natural teacher", famously used the time to begin writing the "soft porn" that would later see him dubbed the "Riviera Gigolo".

"I still remember a sense of excitement that I was on my own, about to have a year in a foreign country," Mr Campbell told The Independent. "I got off the train in Nice and didn't even know where I was going to live. I was forced to set myself up there. It was around 10 weeks before I really felt like I was teaching the students anything useful but I also used the time to write."

He described the move as "symptomatic" of the effects the Comprehensive Spending Review would have, adding that to scrap the scheme would be a "great shame".

"The rich will still be able to go off on their gap years, but people from poorer backgrounds may never have another opportunity to experience another culture," said the former spin doctor. "My year abroad turned me on to my studies. I did not particularly enjoy my time at university before I went but, after coming back, I began to really get into it."

Others who have served in European classrooms as part of the programme include the BBC journalist Reeta Chakrabarti as well as the impressionist Rory Bremner and the author Stephen Clarke, who later wrote about his experiences as an Englishman living in France in his book A Year in the Merde. The current Aston Villa manager Gérard Houllier also served as foreign language assistant in an English school. That programme – which this year had 2,800 foreign students in Britain working as assistants – is not affected by the suspension.

The latest British Council figures, to be finalised in November, show that more than 2,500 British students made the move this year, most of them to France – a rise of about 400 on 2005. University lecturers claim that interest in the programme has been rising steadily for years. About 2,800 foreign students are also currently teaching in British classrooms.

The British Council is understood to have written to tutors earlier this month, informing them that recruitment to the programme depended upon the CSR. After the Chancellor's speech, the British Council received a £30m cut to its FCO grant, which fell to £149m. A spokesman confirmed yesterday that the programme remained suspended in England and Wales.

A statement read: "As the programme is funded by the DfE, it is subject to the current government review of all public spending and at this stage we are unable to open recruitment for English language assistant placements in 2011-12." No date has yet been set for recruitment to the Welsh programme. A final decision is due to be taken by the Department for Education, which funds the scheme.

Florence Potot, head of French at the University of Northumbria, a leading university for foreign language teaching, said: "The assistantship programme brings more long-term benefits than costs. To cut it because of budget constraints would really be ironic. Employers love the skills that the programme teaches."

The Alumni

Fiona Bruce

The BBC newsreader taught children English in a school over the Channel in Saint Quentin. She spent the 1984/85 academic year in France

Alastair Campbell

Labour's former spin doctor taught in a school in Nice, France, from 1977 to 1978, where he said he 'began the writings some people have called soft porn'

Rory Bremner

The comedian and impressionist was assigned to a school in Paris in 1982, where he taught for a year

J K Rowling

The Harry Potter author was assigned to a school in Montreuil on the outskirts of Paris for the 1985/86 academic year