Education reform will fuel future’s hi-tech industries – Puttnam

23 Sep 2011

Oscar and BAFTA-winning movie producer and educator Lord David Puttnam

Lord David Puttnam says Irish education reform in the 1960s ultimately delivered today’s hi-tech 21st century industries. He tells John Kennedy we need to do it over again.

I’ve spoken to Oscar and BAFTA-winning movie producer and educator Lord David Puttnam on at least three occasions in the past year or so, and each time he made it clear how he is eager to see that Ireland grasps how fundamental investment in education curriculum is to securing the nation’s future.

Lord Puttnam says Irish education reform in the 1960s delivered today’s hi-tech 21st century industries. He believes we need to do it again.

“I’ve looked at triage theory where doctors have had to make judgements on what patients are likely to recover and where resources are best used. Ireland is going to have to take a triage opinion on where public spending goes. Times are hard but whatever money you have has to go into education and the technology end of education.

“I think there are three crucial issues. The first thing is the competitive landscape of the 21st century is a skills and talent landscape. The nations that prove they have the most talented and innovative people will be the success stories and the ones that don’t are going to have a lot of problems.

“The second thing is the educational world is going to have to come to terms with the fact that they must meet the expectations of the new generation of young people. Kids expect to be taught using the technology and the tools they are familiar with in their real lives.

“There was a wonderful moment in a conference I was at and a kid was asked about technology and he said ‘this is a real problem, when I go to the classroom I have to power down’. That says it all – when young people don’t think traditional education is fit for purpose for the way they see the world, it is the educational world that has a problem, not the kids. The implication of this is that governments will have to accept paid time out for professional development of teachers.

“The third issue – and for me this is the most concrete and ought to be an easy nut to crack for a country like Ireland – unless you have a world-class education system you can say goodbye to the possibility of sustainable pensions, a sustainable health service or public service.

“Only an education system can drive a nation to a place where it can afford those other things – things we think of as essentials today that could very quickly look like luxuries tomorrow.”

Emulating the Sixties

Lord Puttnam 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.

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 bio-pharma giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Boston Scientific, Merck and Pfizer. The fruit of those policies is the continuing arrival of newer investors such as Facebook and Zynga and additional investments by Analog Devices and PayPal.

While we grapple with high unemployment and a struggling economy, we have industries that are the envy of the modern world.

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 once again potential game-changing investments in ICT for schools – such as the €150m Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy – have stalled.

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

“Policy-makers need to be thinking about the next 20 or 30 years,” Puttnam says vehemently. “You’ve done it before. You can do it again.”

Lord Puttnam says he believes the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn TD understands this and will be the man who could see reform through. “I have a very high regard for Ruairi Quinn. He is a good Minister for Education and has dedicated his life to this.”

It is on this point that 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.

Schmidt said that in the UK education system you are either a “luvvy” or a “boffin”, adding: “Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together.”

“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 Donogh 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 and that buses would bring kids from rural areas to school. He also introduced the Regional Technical Colleges, now known as Institutes of Technology. 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 future.

“Politicians need to be planning for the next 20 years not their current term in office. What Donogh O’Malley did in the Sixties was impressive; they [the policy-makers] need to be applying that level of forward thinking.”

Ireland’s opportunity

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 could give us the opportunity to do it right and eventually leapfrog other countries.

He agrees but ventures it could go further than that. Ireland could develop technologies, products and content that could turn into a lucrative export industry.

However, if we don’t move soon, that opportunity will once again fall into the hands of fast-moving entrepreneurs and industries in power bases like Silicon Valley.

“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 them.”

Two global industries that survive upheaval constantly are defence and education, he adds. And if Ireland wants to succeed with education it has it within its power to do so.

Lord Puttnam says that falling maths standards are not a problem unique to Ireland or the UK, but this is happening across the world. “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 their 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. No longer was education a right limited to a privileged minority, but a right extended to the majority.”


Lord David 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, The Duellists 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.

An ardent supporter of the need to reinvigorate representative democracy, he founded organisations like Skillset, the UK’s National Teaching Awards, and 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.

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

Digital Ireland Forum

Lord David Puttnam is one of the keynote speakers at The Digital Ireland Forum, a Silicon Republic breakfast event on 30 September 2011.