We need to talk about education


INTERVIEW:IT’S NOT every day you meet an Oscar winner, and it’s even more unusual that our interview takes place on the day after the Academy has handed out its golden baubles. However, Lord David Puttnam is not about to reminisce wistfully about his days as the producer of Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, The Mission or The Killing Fields.

“I made a decision quite early on that I would be gone at 55,” says the 71-year-old member of the British House of Lords (Puttnam was made a life peer in 1997). “I actually was a year late. The film industry is capable of being extremely crude to its aged.”

Instead, Puttnam wants to talk about education. He has been chancellor of Sunderland University, was chairman of the National Film and Television School for a decade, and founded Skillset – which trains young people who want to work in the film and television industries – and is currently chancellor of the Open University. But now he is campaigning for a fundamental change to the Irish education system.

“I am deeply concerned for the grandchildren of my friends who, unless something quite dramatic happens, will find themselves competing on an uneven playing field with most of the rest of western Europe.

“I think the nation dropped the ball in the 1980s at a time when it had been given a tremendous start. Donogh O’Malley, in 1967, brought in free education and also started experimenting with technology; some of the very first computers were here in Irish schools. This lead to an extraordinary thing; the diaspora were able to get jobs early on in Silicon Valley. When those companies went global, a disproportionate number of companies located here for tax but also for personnel reasons. So there was this direct relationship between a very ballsy decision made by O’Malley in 1967 to the tiger economy.

“The tragedy is that, far from using a portion of that wealth, a bit like Britain and North Sea Oil, to really up the game on education, in this country as a proportion of GDP it actually fell.”

Puttnam has worked with several governments on their approach to education, including the UK, Finland and Singapore. “For five years I was adviser to the Singapore government. It’s a different type of authoritarian government that is genuinely improving year on year. Their commitment to getting things right, the way they go about making decisions, is remarkable. The quality of the civil service is absolutely remarkable.”

It’s quite the career change to shift from the bright lights of Hollywood to the desk lamps of education, and while Puttnam may have learned much from the film world, he maintains that little of it is useful in his current work. “I think what most informed me was my own appalling education and in a sense I had a grudge and wanted to know more about what had gone wrong. And the more I dug, the more I understood what had gone wrong. It won’t please everyone.”

What Puttnam is arguing for is not merely throwing technology at Ireland’s education system; he wants a fundamental change to teaching where technology is totally embraced, starting with the curriculum. “There’s a mistake being made at the moment where there is a push to digitise the curriculum. That’s not the answer; the answer is to look at what a fully digital curriculum is, the means of teaching the subject you want to teach and creating the levels of engagement you want to create. It’s digital as opposed to digitised.

“My granddaughter, who is seven, has about a dozen learning apps on her iPad. Now she is a very privileged kid. She spends a lot of her time playing and learning on her iPad. She plays word bingo and maths bingo. Is that learning or is that playing? What technology manages to do is fuse them and one of the problems is that the teaching community still has a resistance to the idea that anyone who is enjoying something can also learn.”

Almost no one would argue that Ireland doesn’t need significant technological investment in its education sector, but where will the funds come from? In Puttnam’s view, this is not an option – it is a necessity.

“Sometimes in life there are things you cannot afford not to pay for – and government is about making choices. There is no possible course any government in Ireland can take that somehow allows for a cut-price education system. That is the most certain course towards impoverishment.

“It’s a cruel thing to say, but you cannot build a nation on the back of a health service. This is not a conversation I’d like to have with someone who is lying in hospital waiting on a cancer operation. But the truth is you cannot build an economy based on the health service. You can build an economy based on education, which in turn generates revenue to pay for a health service.”

Puttnam does not make these claims lightly. After all, he has ME, which means he’s probably more familiar with the health system than most.

“I’m not too reliant , happily. I have ME, which is a bore, and I have to cope with that. I had a bad time this morning.” At this point he rubs his eyes tiredly, having had to dash to our interview from a train, before heading for a meeting, and then directly to the podium to deliver a lecture on this topic at Dublin’s Science Gallery. “I’ve learned to cope with it and I refuse to let it get me down. No, that sounds too heroic; I just try to not to let it disable me.”

Education is not the only area where Ireland needs to burnish its approach. Puttnam references the peculiar fact that while Ireland might see itself as an agricultural nation, it can’t compete with the likes of Holland.

“Agriculture and horticulture, both of which Ireland has a decent position in but both of which will be significant growth sectors in the next decade. Ireland has the land, the traditions, but it doesn’t have the science. Ireland has infinitely better resources in terms of quality of soil and climate. And yet it’s the Dutch that own the science of horticulture in particular. I find this inexplicable.

“Farming is an affinity, not a science in Ireland. Farming in Ireland is . . . done reasonably well, but it’s not a science. If you want farming to become an economic driver, the scientific component of farming is going to have to up its game.”

Puttnam is conscious that he is an English Labour lord living in Ireland who is trying to tell the Government here how to manage its affairs, but he has his own emotional investment here and doesn’t shy away from using Irish history to make his case.

“I’m 71 years old; I’m a romantic. I came to Ireland because I’m a romantic. I’ve lived in this country for 23 years. I say all this as someone who loves this country, opted to live here and will die here. There’s got to be a different kind of thinking that really believes that the country could be special.

“Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were very clear about that they wanted Ireland to be. They did not want it to be just another country – Collins wrote constantly about Ireland being a beacon, a particular type of country, a particular type of ethic and attitude in itself. That hasn’t been delivered and it never got further away from being delivered than during the boom years.”