On the initiative of the Foreign Office, a British Committee for Relations with Other Countries was established in 1934. In January 1935, the word 'Committee' was replaced by 'Council', and in 1936 the title was shortened to 'British Council'. Its primary purpose was to counter cultural propaganda by the Axis powers; more generally its functions were to promote wider appreciation of Great Britain and the English language abroad and develop closer cultural and commercial links with other countries.
The new British Council took the form of a limited company and included representatives of educational, financial, commercial and industrial interests and of the Foreign Office, the Dominions Office, the Board of Trade, the Board of Education and the Department of Overseas Trade. It took over funds formerly employed by the News Department of the Foreign Office for cultural propaganda abroad, but most of its resources were derived from private contributions. Its overseas activities were conducted through Foreign Office staff. Within a short time the British Council delegated its authority to a smaller executive committee.
In 1940 the British Council was incorporated by royal charter, with its powers vested in an executive committee, some members of which were to be appointed by ministers. The members elected their own chairman, subject to approval by the Foreign Secretary, and also appointed new members of the council. In 1941 a British Council section, later renamed the Cultural Relations Department, was established within the Foreign Office to control its policy and expenditure.
The administrative work of the British Council is the responsibility of the director general, who is chairman of the executive committee. For a long time the council was organised into two main groupings, regional and functional. These are still reflected in the present structure with nineteen divisions and departments, each of which is directly responsible to the director general or his deputy or to one of two assistant director generals. Much of the council's work is guided by committees, both advisory and executive.
In 1942, on British Council initiative, R A Butler, then president of the Board of Education, founded the Meetings (later Conference) of Allied Ministers of Education. Throughout the period 1942 to November 1945, the British Council provided the secretariat, executive bureau and one specialist committee, the Books and Periodicals Commission, for the Conference. In November 1945, at a United Nations conference for which the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education had laid the foundations, the constitution of UNESCO was formulated. Directors of British Council departments and other members of the council subsequently represented it on the national co-operating body that dealt with UNESCO.
Since the Second World War, the British Council has had its own representatives overseas, and its activities now include the promotion of English language teaching and British studies in foreign educational institutions, the maintenance of British libraries and cultural centres abroad and the general fostering of contacts in educational, scientific and professional fields. It provides scholarships for a number of overseas students for post graduate work in this country. Much of this work is undertaken on behalf of the Overseas Development Administration and United Nations bodies, and the council is funded by grants from that ministry and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Two educational organisations amalgamated with the British Council in 1981, the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas and its advisory body the Technical Education and Training Organisation for Overseas Countries. In December 1993 the British Council became the corporate trustee of the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges and in effect absorbed its functions, though the bureau retained its distinct organisation.
The Public Records (Designation of Bodies) Order 2003 made the British Council a Public Record Body.