Ireland will suffer without investment


IF WE IN Ireland want to remain competitive in the 21st century, then renewed investment in education and in information and computing technology is critical. High-speed connectivity provides the opportunity for a new strategic plan for ICT and e-learning across the whole of Irish education.

The roots of the profound change that those working in education find themselves having to address run very deep.

I’ll illustrate that belief with a metaphor I’ve used many times before.

If you took a brilliant surgeon from 1911 and dropped him into an operating theatre today, he could do little more than wipe the patient’s brow, take their pulse, make a cup of tea and stand, with extreme interest, watching what everyone else was doing. Why? Because his skills would have become obviated in the intervening 100 years, he would be in an alien technological environment.

Now take a similarly gifted schoolteacher from 1911 and put her in a class with a chalkboard and a piece of chalk, and in most subjects she could deliver what would be entirely recognisable to every one of us as a lesson. Why? Because technology has not yet been allowed to make anything like the significant impact on the process of teaching and learning as has proved possible in most other fields of human activity.

Why are we making such heavy weather of transforming our classrooms? I see the following crucial lessons that we ought to have absorbed in our efforts to create a more successful society.

First, getting education right is far more than simply one among a number of important concerns. It is, in so far as the future of this country is concerned, far closer to being the whole ball of wax.

Second, no education system can be better than the quality of its teachers, and the ever-improving standards it’s prepared to demand of them and reward them for.

Third, teacher training has to be viewed as a continuing process, especially in this incredibly fast-moving digital age.

Fourth, as I discovered during my seven years as president of Unicef, there needs to be a global acceptance of the importance of the education of women, as the fulcrum around which educated and healthy families can be built.

Fifth, this country enjoyed an early and inspired start because of the courage and foresight of Donogh O’Malley. It was largely thanks to his imagination that Ireland was able to take an early lead in encouraging its young people to embrace not just new but also largely untried technology. But early successes in the use of technology were insufficiently built upon, to the extent that public expenditure on education was irresponsibly allowed to drift downwards. Where education is concerned, an absolute minimum of 7 per cent of total GDP is the figure the Government must set. Only a world-class education system can, over time, deliver a world-class health service, as well as securing world-class pensions, along with a world-class infrastructure.

Students learn and teachers teach well in environments they respect. The physical infrastructure of many schools should be a cause for national shame. Had some fraction of the billions invested in buildings that are now unneeded been committed to refurbishing schools, the nation would be far better placed to get out of the hole that debt and waste helped create.

The good news is that many outstanding people in this country understand education to be the cause and consequence of any possibility of national renewal.

The days when Ireland relied on the church and the largesse of Europe to address many problems are over. It’s now down to a test of will to invest the time, effort and energy to rediscover those things for which Ireland has been celebrated: quality of learning, culture, imagination, inventiveness, a sense of “community” and “place” that the world has in the past – and, please God, will once again – come to admire, and possibly even seek to emulate.

Lord Puttnam’s films include The Mission, The Killing Fieldsand Chariots of Fire.He now focuses on his work in education and the environment. This is an edited version of his speech to an HEAnet conference