Schools revolution

8 Sep 2011

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Movie producer and educator Lord David Puttnam says Irish education reform in the 1960s delivered today’s hi-tech industries. He tells John Kennedy we need to do it again.

Oscar and BAFTA-winning movie producer and the previous UK government’s digital adviser Lord David Puttnam has a keen sense of Irish industrial and educational policy and history.

Not only does he sit on the board of global digital education firm Promethean, he happens to live here in Ireland and urges Irish education policy makers to remember the breakthrough and far-reaching policies of former education minister Donogh O’Malley in the late 1960s, who along with Sean Lemass made education in this country a right, not a privilege.

Promethean, which has kitted out thousands of Irish schools with whiteboards and technology-enabled learning and teaching tools, has the stated aim of unlocking the potential of human achievement in education and training at all ages around the world.

The policies of Lemass and O’Malley set in motion the creation of the human capital and industrial policy that attracted so many multinationals, from hi-tech giants like Intel, Microsoft, Apple, HP and Google to life sciences and biopharma giants like Glaxo-SmithKline, Boston Scientific, Merck and Pfizer. While Ireland grapples with high unemployment and a struggling economy, it has industries that are the envy of the modern world.

Calls for Irish education reform

But there is concern about the future. Teachers themselves are calling for reform. The entire country is aware of falling maths and science standards, particularly the lack of qualified maths teachers, and again potential game-changing investments in ICT for schools – such as the €150m Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy – have stalled.

This is at a time when the recent CAO applications demonstrate an increase in students seeking ICT and science courses at third level and when the local ICT industry claims there are 5,000 job vacancies for skilled workers.

"Policy makers need to be thinking about the next 20 or 30 years," Puttnam stresses. "You’ve done it before. You can do it again."

He believes the Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn, TD, understands this, and believes Quinn will be the man who could see reform through. "I have a very high regard for Ruairí Quinn. He is a good Minister for Education and has dedicated his life to this."

Puttnam, who sits in the House of Lords, advised the last UK Labour government on digital policy. He is best known for being the producer of movies including The Mission, Bugsy Malone, Memphis Belle, The Killing Fields and Midnight Express. He won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1981 for Chariots of Fire and a BAFTA in 1982 for his outstanding contribution to the British Film Industry. For more than 10 years, he chaired the National Film and Television School and taught Nick Park, the creator of Wallace & Gromit.

EDUCATING IRELAND FOR ITS FUTURE

€98m

AMOUNT SPENT ON IT EQUIPMENT FOR IRISH SCHOOLS IN 2010

€1.5m

AMOUNT ALLOTTED IN THE LAST BUDGET FOR SCHOOL IT EQUIPMENT FOR 2011

€44m

AMOUNT COMMITTED IN LAST BUDGET TO ENSURE 300 SCHOOLS GET HIGH-SPEED BROADBAND

64pc

PERCENTAGE OF LEAVING CERT MATHS STUDENTS WHO WANT SMALLER CLASS SIZES

Puttnam’s achievements in the movies vie with his contribution to education and politics. An ardent supporter of the need to reinvigorate representative democracy, he founded organisations like Skillset, which helps young people to join the film and TV industries, and the UK’s National Teaching Awards, was chancellor of the University of Sunderland, as well as the Open University and chaired the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) between 1998 and 2003.

“NESTA still has stg£300m in funding to date and I’m quite excited about that,” he tells me.

About Schmidt

I ask him about comments made by Google chairman Eric Schmidt at the recent MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, where Schmidt criticised the divide between science and the arts in UK education, and venture that I suspect the same divide has occurred here in Ireland.

“I fully agree with what Schmidt said,” replies Puttnam. “The Edwardians and Victorians would be horrified at the level of specialism today. What people require is a rounded education.”

Puttnam argues that our policy makers need to be applying the same level of forward thinking as O’Malley when he acted swiftly to introduce education reforms that ensured that from 1969 all schools up to Intermediate (Junior) Cert level would be free.

Crucially, access to third-level education was extended to a system of means-tested grants that allowed less well-off students to go to university.

Today, the battle has evolved from reaching a basic education standard to producing the best and brightest to compete on a global stage and policies that will define employment opportunities for our citizens for the decades ahead.

I put it to Puttnam that it has been suggested Ireland has an opportunity, because of the failure of successive ICT policies for schools, to roll out a fresh digital education strategy that could leapfrog other countries.

He agrees, but suggests it could go further. Ireland could not only leapfrog other countries but could develop technologies, products and content that could be a lucrative export industry for the country.

“The countries that solve the problems now with education and digitise their education are creating the potential industries of tomorrow and we need to decide if we want to be the people who created those industries or if we want to buy those solutions from others who have.”

The matter of maths

Another thing to bear in mind is that maths, in particular, will be the lingua franca of the 21st-century economy.

Puttnam adds that falling maths standards are not a problem unique to Ireland or the UK. “Headmasters in schools across Ireland and the UK need to be taking greater responsibility, particularly over the maths issue and computing in schools.”

But the time for action, the time for reform is now, he urges. Nations like Ireland who rely on the brainpower of its citizens need to keep their edge.

“Donogh O’Malley’s Education Act was to my mind the second wave of revolutionary education reform of the 20th century. It transformed access to education.”

In the second decade of the 21st century, the reforms O’Malley instigated in the late 1960s have paved the way for state-of-the-art industries that today – despite the property-fuelled financial collapse – are keeping Ireland’s economy on a road to potential recovery.

Puttnam says the time is now to implement reforms that extend beyond the term of any government and will boost our nation in the 2020s and 2030s. “The point is, you’ve done it before,” he adds.

Lord David Puttnam will be keynote speaker at the upcoming Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin on 30 September 2011.

Photo: Oscar and BAFTA-winning film producer Lord David Puttnam believes in education reform and investment in schools’ ICT. Education policy makers need to recall the pioneering decisions of Donagh O’Malley in the 1960s, which planted the seed for Ireland’s economic boom in the late 1990s

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com