Time to take triage approach to spending priorities – Lord Puttnam

21 Oct 2010

As many of us know, Ireland is going to have to take a triage-like approach to decide where public spending goes for the future. But according to the former digital adviser to the former Labour government in the UK, renowned filmmaker Lord David Puttnam, one area that can’t be skimped upon is spending on education, specifically technology in education.

Ireland last year committed to a €150m Smart Schools = Smart Economy plan to equip every classroom with a digital projector, a laptop and software as well as training for teachers. Earlier this week, Education Minister Mary Coughlan TD followed up on last year’s €23.3m investment in hardware with a further €20.7m in grants for 698 schools to buy ICT equipment.

Puttnam, the Cork-based Oscar winner who produced popular films like Chariots of Fire, The Duellists, Bugsy Malone, Memphis Belle and The Mission, was in Dublin last week to address the Irish Teaching and Learning Festival. He sits on the board of educational technology firm Promethean.

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

I put it to Puttnam that few governments have the money to invest in 21st-century skills. The problem in the US was illustrated recently when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg committed $100m to putting technology into schools in New Jersey.

The ‘three crucial issues’

“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 it 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.

“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 the professional development of teachers.

“The third issue – and for me this is the most concrete and ought to for a country like Ireland be an easy nut to crack – is 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,” Puttnam warns.

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