Lord Puttnam: Ireland’s survival guide for the 21st century

30 Sep 2011

Lord David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning producer behind notable movies such as Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, and a committed educationalist and digital adviser to the UK and Singapore governments, at the Digital Ireland Forum

The good news that Twitter came to Ireland this week can be directly laid at the feet of Donogh O’Malley and his decision in 1968 to educate Ireland in the 20th century. However, says former UK digital adviser Lord David Puttnam, Ireland has yet to make a similar visionary decision for the 21st century.

Puttnam, the renowned Oscar and BAFTA-winning movie producer who has lived in Ireland for the last 22 years, sits on the board of Promethean and advises the Singapore government on digital policy, told this morning’s Digital Ireland Forum that the next world war will be a war for jobs.

The countries that survive in the 21st century will be those that have the workforces best placed with the education and skills to get those jobs.

“What’s clear to me is China has no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past, where each historical phase of development has been destroyed by internal convulsions. The developed world has been far too complacent in respect to the rise of China as a dominant economic force in the 21st century.

“Britain in the 19th century was too focused on Bismarck’s Germany and France, and none of these countries spotted the rise of post-Civil War United States which became more powerful than all of them together. But now we’ve become so adjusted to seeing the US as all powerful, that we’ve lost sight of what’s been happening in China.

“We had begun to factor China in, but as a consumer of goods and services, not as a hard-working, innovative competitor that has reinvented capitalism and which is bending it to its own purposes.

Referring to Gallup chairman Jim Clifton’s new book The New Jobs War, Puttnam warned: “The coming world war will be an all-out global war for good jobs. Clifton defines a good job as one that has a paycheque and which is steady work with at least 30 hours per week. The primary will of the world will not be about religion, about having a family, democracy or owning a home – it will be about having a good job and everything comes after that.

“I can think of nothing that could strengthen (Ireland’s Jobs and Enterprise) Minister (Richard) Bruton’s hand in cabinet than to read this book and its suppositions. Over the next 15 years, the world will be lead by an economic force for job creation and GDP growth, and guess who’s vying for lead – China. The US has gone from leading to lagging, our infrastructure in the West is crumbling around us and healthcare costs are strangling economies.”

Puttnam quoted McKinsey’s economic impact of the achievement gap in US schools. “The achievement gaps between black and Latino-American students, between low-income and the rest of the US and better-performing countries has not only cost the US economy trillions, but has imposed on the US economy a permanent national recession.

“According to Ernst & Young, China has 9pc of its GDP dedicated to infrastructure investment compared to 3pc in the US.”

However, if you think the US situation is bad, then Puttnam believes the situation facing Europe could be far worse.

European investment in ICT

He pointed out that Europe’s investment in ICT is lagging behind the rest of the world. “European states could add €760bn to GDP by 2020 by just having the same level of investment as the US. Europe’s stock of ICT capital as a percentage of GDP has fallen to two-thirds the level of the US from being the same in 1991.

“If Ireland wants to remain remotely competitive in the 21st century then clearly investment in education and investment in ICT and ICT infrastructure will be critical if you want to enjoy the remotest possibility of success. Digital technology will be the driving force for much of the changes that are coming.”

Puttnam said he suspects a resistance to change and digital education at official levels. “Young people today find it utterly bewildering to go into a classroom today with its low levels of technology. The roots of profound change that have to addressed must run deep.”

Puttnam used the analogy of a surgeon from 1911 being brought forward in time to an operating table in 2011 and finding today’s hospital environment alien. “But take a teacher from 1911 and bring them to a 2011 classroom and they could just deliver a lesson because the technology is the same.”

He said that the present education system has not taken into account changes in attitudes to effective use of homework and new discoveries in terms of how the brain works, such as mind, brain and education and improving ways of how kids absorb and apply knowledge. “In truth, most of our children are taught by people who haven’t begun to scratch the surface.”

Puttnam pointed out that the task of winning back trust in the education system through effective policy making is desperately urgent. “It is vital for all young people to remember that no matter how gifted or charismatic you may be, you will never convince anyone to believe you are authentic until you exemplify the values you teach. This is every bit as true for politicians as it is for educators.”

He said it is important to remember that teachers themselves are as open to embracing technological change.

“The Irish education system supports and reinforces outdated platforms that haven’t changed since the Easter Rising. Digitising old practices is like putting a man with a red flag to walk in front of cars again. Those driving education improvements would do well to consider advances entirely digital as opposed to digitising the existing curriculum.”

‘Students learn and teachers teach best in environments they respect’

“When I use the word successful,” Puttnam maintained, “I am not alluding to economic success. Getting education right is more than one thing among a number of priorities.

“First, no education system can be better than the quality of the teachers that it employs; the ever-improving standards it’s prepared to demand of them, it has to reward them for. Second, teacher training at every level of the education system has to be viewed as a non-negotiable improving process.

“Third, best quality teacher training along with regular, annualised time out for continuous professional development (CPD) as an absolute. Fourthly, there needs to be undisputed global acceptance of the education of women. Educated women are the fulcrum around which you can build educated families; and those families will invariably be smaller and better cared for,” Puttnam said.

He said Ireland enjoyed an early and inspired start due to the courage and foresight of Education Minister Donogh O’Malley in 1968. “His tragic death was in the tradition of Ireland losing the best of its leaders before they are able to keep the goals they set.

“It was thanks to his imagination that this country was able to take an early lead with new and untried technology. The gamble paid off and a well-educated, returning diaspora had a great deal to do with the IT giants setting up shop here and 20 years of unparallelled success.

“The type of success we saw this week with Twitter coming here can all be laid at the feet of Donogh O’Malley’s decision in the 1960s to educate Ireland in the 20th century. We are not doing the same for the 21st century.”

Puttnam said a nation’s investment in a world-class education system can over time deliver other things such as a world-class health service, a premium pensions system and better infrastructure. “Only an education system can fund the other things like roads.

“Students learn and teachers teach best in environments they respect. The physical infrastructure of many primary and secondary schools in Ireland should be the subject of shame.

“There are many outstanding people in Ireland today who understand that education will be the cause and circumstance of economic renewal. For too long Ireland relied on the largesse of the Church and Europe. I’m glad those days are over.

“It will be the quality of learning, the culture of inventiveness, Ireland’s unique sense of community that will make Ireland a place that the world will come to admire and one day want to emulate,” Puttnam said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years