Why Puttnam wants schools to focus on the bigger picture


Former movie mogul says classrooms must embrace technology to prepare us for 21st century, writes Joanne Hunt

‘IF I had listened to my careers master at school, apparently I was stupid,” says Oscar winner David Puttnam.

A former president of Unicef UK, the current deputy chairman of Channel 4, a trustee of the Tate Gallery – Lord Puttnam’s achievements, too numerous to list, have long ago made ridiculous the assessment of his London schoolmaster.

“I was non-educated, which left me angry, because I realised I was not a stupid person,” says the Labour peer, a resident of west Cork for some years.

If there was anger about education, it fermented into action. Having spent 30 years as a producer on films such as The Mission, The Killing Fields and Midnight Express, taking the 1982 best film Oscar for Chariots of Fire, Puttnam was instrumental in establishing the UK’s National Film and Television School, of which he later became chairman.

Retiring from film in 1998, his potential to advise on education had already been spotted. A week after Labour’s 1997 victory, education secretary David Blunkett invited him to join his taskforce. “I heard myself saying, ‘That would be great’,” says the self-effacing Skibbereen resident.

He describes his surprise when three months later, tucking into breakfast in a Skibbereen cafe, he read he had been made a Labour peer in the House of Lords. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a lord’. It was the first I knew of it.”

As founder of the National Teaching Awards, which he chaired until 2008, the first chairman of the General Teaching Council and current chairman of the Open University, Puttnam’s form in education is a match for his plaudits on the silver screen.

It’s education that has brought him from his Cork home to Dublin, where last weekend he gave the keynote address at the first Irish Teaching and Learning Festival.

The event explored how new technology and teaching methods might contribute to Ireland’s economic future. Sponsored by educational technology company Promethean, of which Puttnam is a non-executive director, the 1,600 teachers who attended got a glimpse of Puttnam’s insights into education in Ireland.

“Ireland needs to seriously raise its educational game if it’s to dig itself out of the economic mess,” he says. Puttnam recommends a “triage” approach to our national woes where, when resources are insufficient to fix all ills, those areas with the best chance of ensuring our survival are prioritised – and for Puttnam it’s education, education, education.

“Only a world-class education system will deliver a world-class health service and secure pensions,” he says. “Getting our education system in Ireland right is not just one among a number of social and political priorities we have to address – it’s the whole ball of wax.”

As the UK government’s digital adviser, Puttnam has warned that classrooms will have to embrace digital technologies if education is to prepare us for the 21st century.

“Digital technology has reshaped the way young people connect with, make sense of and engage with society,” he says.

“Either schools find a way to engaging with and using the type of digital media that young people are familiar with, or the kids themselves will come to the conclusion that school has little to do with them and their world.” If this happens, he warns, “the only loser will be education”.

Over 40 per cent of Irish classrooms now have interactive whiteboards, says Puttnam, but for him, ongoing teacher training is as important as the hardware.

Citing the UK experience where whiteboards in some schools languished in cupboards because no one knew how to use them, he says that, “It’s a skilled teacher, adept at handling the most recent technology, who will increasingly become society’s greatest asset”.

So in a year when US multinationals have raised concerns about the quality of Irish graduates, what else needs to change?

“I think the Irish assessment process is very rote-driven and isn’t necessarily attuned to looking for gifted people – so you could end up being a nation of very well-equipped accountants. It’s not attuned to Ireland’s natural gifts. If you look at the last two or three hundred years, Ireland’s been very good at a very interesting range of things, but it’s never been a kind of dream country for maths, not that I’m aware of.”

The Government’s plan for an International Content Services Centre to broker between digital content developers and the major content distributors seemed to be the perfect marriage of our innate creativity with a digital future.

The Government appointed Puttnam to chair the taskforce for the centre. How is it progressing? “It hasn’t been easy,” he says. “I’ve believed from day one this can only be done in partnership with another country,” he says. “I don’t believe that Ireland can do this on its own. I further don’t believe that you can build an economy based on trying to pull a tax stunt on the rest of Europe. You might get away with it for a year or two, but ultimately, Ireland is part of the EU. It’s yet another non-sustainable answer – a short-term fix.”

Circling back to the need to deploy technology in the classroom, he says students shouldn’t have to “power down” from the digital world they inhabit when they go through the school gates. But more fundamental than a digitally “powered-up” classroom is a habitable one. “I really think it’s a disgrace that we have schools in Ireland which should have been condemned years ago.”

Referring to deserted new buildings, the detritus of the boom, he says, “If there’s a guy who doesn’t want to go bankrupt but can’t repay his debts, has anyone thought about taking a building away from him and making it into a school? Even just one – as a symbol? That’s what I think a country taking its problems seriously would do.”