The Lord David Puttnam Interview

The education world is about to discover the world is not flat, Lord David Puttnam tells The fallout is likely to be dramatic, with both danger and opportunity ahead...
The Lord David Puttnam Interview
By David Westley
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Lord David Puttnam of Queensgate is perhaps best known for his films. As a producer, Lord Puttnam was responsible for the Academy Award Winning Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, That Will Be The Day, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Local Hero - among many others. The critical and commercial success of his films led to him becoming the Chairman and CEO of Columbia pictures. He lasted just over a year, telling it was the worst job he had ever had.

Not content with one successful career, 20 years ago, at the tender age of 56, Lord Puttnam decided to call it a day and move into the world of politics, primarily to effect change in education and the environment. While his work in film is undoubtedly what Lord David Puttnam continues to be known for, the lower profile work undertaken in the last two decades may well end up his biggest legacy.

For the UK government Lord Puttnam worked in both the Ministry of Education, and later as a trade envoy, while in the House of Lords he has worked on everything from scrutiny of the Communications Bill to the long term implications of artificial intelligence. Today, however, he is focused on his role heading up Nord Anglia Education's Advisory Board, giving his insights into the direction the group needs to be heading. caught up with him in the UAE, on a visit to Nord Anglia International School Dubai, to get his take on the future of education...

We began however by asking him why he he had chosen to work with an independent schools’ group, albeit rather a large one, rather than continue in the UK state sector, where he could have, and indeed had, a much bigger impact?

Well, I did 20 years in the state sector, but had to come to the realisation two years ago, that I was 75, and was not going to achieve everything I had wanted to. Many of the dreams that I had and have for education – for example what it could do for equality of opportunity – I was not going to live to see. That was, and is quite a painful realisation, but it’s the reality.

However, I still have a passion for change, and through serendipity, I had an opportunity present itself in Ireland, with Nord Anglia. Nord Anglia may not be as large as the UK state sector, but it is a big international group, and my ability and opportunity to make a difference here, is significantly higher than at a national level.

Nord Anglia provides something unique in terms of the minds we get to shape. I had been a special trade envoy for the UK government. When I visited countries, specifically in SE Asia, I often visited British International schools – I did not know it at the time but many of them belonging to Nord Anglia.

Lord David Puttnam on stage with Nord Anglia Dubai's GCSE drama students.

These schools were also often the schools for the political and commercial elites of the country. I had often thought it would be amazing to help the children of these schools think about how they could do things differently from their mums and dads – to be more imaginative, to think differently about responsibility, and how they would take over from their mums and dads... That would be real potential to effect real change.

I am a filmmaker, and I tend to make an argument by telling stories. That still works in the world of business and education, but not in politics…

Why Nord Anglia specifically though?

I did a series for RTE on the impact of digital on Irish society. One of the episodes was on education, and I made the point that the education system in Ireland was incompatible with the direction its economy is going in. Ireland attracts an increasingly amount of inward investment and it is the headquarters of more and more international companies wanting a base in Europe. Consequently, workers are coming in from around the world.

However, the Irish education system is not suited to that audience – it is very rigid, it is not easy to move out of and change to another curriculum when those international workers then move again.

The episode was discussed widely, and led to two meetings with ministers, who, fundamentally, agreed with the points made but could not find the way to effect change in the state sector. As a result, we looked to the world for private organisations that had the experience of launching independent IB schools, in international markets. That led to Nord Anglia, and the launch of the first Nord Anglia school in Ireland – also the country's first IB school.

It also led to me eventually becoming chairman of the Nord Anglia Advisory Board, which was a role I had wanted even before I knew about the school group or that the role existed.

You are involved with Nord Anglia Education on two levels – working with students, but also helping the group move and prepare for the changes to come. Can you let me know, briefly about those two roles at NAE?

 I was anything but an ‘A’ student, I didn’t go to Oxbridge, or any university in fact. I am someone who went to night school, and it was very, very difficult. So, I think I am someone that young people can identify with. I struggled, but also found that I did really like to learn.

I use that, the fact I am not an academic, to help bring students on side. That’s the bit that’s personal, how I think I am able to help students, and why they listen, perhaps, to what I have to say.

From a corporate perspective, I have spent my life as an entrepreneur, and I understand business. And this is a business.

My bit of luck is that the ownership structure of NAE has changed from being purely equity to a sovereign wealth fund (Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Baring Private Equity Asia). The long term thinking of a fund like this is very different from the short term, profit-maximizing thinking of the markets or private equity. Through the Advisory Board, I am able to work closely with students and advise on the longer-term business as a whole.

You are known really as a film maker. What is it about your experience as a film producer that makes your ideas relevant to education? Why should the world of education listen?

Plato said the world would be run by story tellers, and it is true that the narratives we spin, and the truths that they contain, are catalysts of change – they are what drives things forward.

But my experience consists of more than just film producing… I left film producing when I was 56, and went into the UK government, into the Department of Education – a sector I discovered not only did I like, but where I felt I had a contribution to make.

One of the first things I did, to combat the teacher shortage at the time, was launch the National Teaching Awards. It was obvious to me that teachers were not being sufficiently celebrated. The campaign focused on the fact that ‘everyone remembers a good teacher…’. I used my contacts to get very famous people to stand in front of the camera and say, effectively, ‘thank you’ to the teachers that had helped them get where they were.

So, to answer your question, I began to convince the David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, that my value lay in the fact I was not an academic, and not a politician, but a person able to look at these worlds from the outside, and to offer something different.

What I learned personally, was that the world of education, specifically the world of teaching, was a lot more valuable than the world of Hollywood which I had just left behind.

What is the state of education in today?

A lot of the narrative in school - in politics, in business, in school even - seems to use fear to drive action. Fear of losing what we have, fear that the jobs of today will not be here tomorrow, fear of the ozone layer, global warming, immigration, walls... Clearly these are important issues that need to be addressed, but do we present these issues in the right way? Children are by their nature optimistic. They see change as an opportunity. Should we not present the world in this way?

In one class today, I showed the film Wall E. I asked the students what the film is about, to which their answer is a robot collecting things. We then drilled in further: What is he collecting (he is collecting rubbish), and then, whose rubbish?

We begin to discuss the nature of the rubbish: Where it's come from, how we deal with it, why it's necessary, why and how to remove it from our ecosystem... It is not about being negative, it's about how we help students to not repeat the same mistakes we have made, by being more self-aware in the world. 

The way we engage students on these issues is not to leave them in fear, but to leave them feeling empowered and capable agents of change. They internalise the issues. They think through their own solutions...

I also showed them the video of Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old who spoke at COP 24…

What we have discovered, with global warming, with plastic in our oceans, is that actions have consequences. Kids are not frightened of that.

So, as we teach children about consequences, for example, coding - we need also to teach not only how to do it, but its ethical boundaries... The ability to think through not just the benefits of what we can do... but also the possible consequences, and whether they are things we want...

When students leave school, they should have a grounding as humans in a very interconnected world, they should have access to principles and a framework for thinking that are able to guide them. Schools should play their part in realising these globally aware human beings.

A lot of educators say increasingly, given we do not know the kinds of jobs that are going to exist tomorrow, it is character that is the most important thing that can be developed by a school. But how can schools teach resilience, for example?

You said you have 5 years left in terms of career. What is the one initiative you would like to have seen flourish when you do leave NAE?

I would like see a space where students can take their learning and actually implement it, and make it real. To put the abstract into practice. Where they can learn to try, and to fail, and to try again.

Lord David Puttnam in Dubai

An example, let's say a student gets the idea for a lightweight backpack, that is both water resistant, and strong enough to cope with whatever a student can throw at it - or carry! Let's say through this initiative, they investigate and find where to manufacture it, affordably and sustainably. They learn to market it and sell it - perhaps even the value of branding with an association with Nord Anglia!

I would like to see students that are able to take an idea and leave with something like this, having seen their learning put into action, having learned to collaborate and think through its realisation.

How will education evolve alongside technology, and will schools become obsolete? (Question by Finn, Nord Anglia Dubai, 5E)

Schools will not become obsolete, we will continue to need places to learn. I think what technology is going to help bring about is the ability of children to study at their own pace. If you look at the method we use to teach music, it is not age driven. We do not stop young musicians progressing to the next phase because they have to wait until they are a certain age. They move forward at their own speed. Technology, I hope, will allow students to proceed faster - or in fact more slowly - in specific subjects. 

I, for example, was often pushed ahead before I had the chance to really understand and absorb what I was being taught. For you and I, education was something that happened to us... That is just wrong... I hope tomorrow students can be in the driving seat of their own education. And it is clearly the technology we have that will enable that.

What have you have already changed in the world of education? (Question by Holly Walters, Nord Anglia Dubai, 5F)

I think one of the initiatives I was most proud of was the campaign and awards that celebrated the specific achievements of teachers.

At the time, in the UK, the teaching profession, through its unions, did not like the idea of individual teachers being treated differently. Everyone had to have the same treatment and to be seen to be the same. The teaching awards were based around the idea that we all remember a great teacher that stood out. Through the awards, we could celebrate the fact that teachers change lives, thank amazing teachers, and give them the recognition they truly deserve. 

At the time, in the UK, the was a real teaching crisis - with not enough graduates going into the profession. It is an ongoing issue, but the competition began to turn things around by helping to change a culture and way of thinking.

What's the biggest risk you've taken in life?  (Question by Ethan, Nord Anglia Dubai, 11F)

I guess that is when I made the decision to leave my job and to start my own business. 

I left the agency I was working in in London because, in part I had become very good at what I was doing and as a result was given a tobacco client. I did not want to promote tobacco - I have never smoked, and never thought it was a good idea.

My boss told me I could not pick and choose which campaigns I worked on. And I accepted that. However, I could choose whether I worked for the agency at all... And what kind of job I had. That was the moment I decided to leave.

I was leaving a very good position, but wanted to do my own thing, and something I thought was right. The decision to start my own company was a big one, however. You leave security behind.

Of course, the single most brave moment was going home to tell my wife!

If you could start your life again, would you still choose the same career path? (Question by Lauren, Nord Anglia Dubai, 11F)

I think I would change very little... I mean, I have had some terrible jobs... Don't ever talk to me about photocopying... It used to be my job to mix and change the potentially lethal chemicals they used. Every week I would have to clean all the parts, in the toilet... It. was terrible...

But without these jobs, it is more difficult to appreciate what is good. All jobs help you to grow in some way - if you're open to learning.

Probably the single worst year of my professional life was when I became President of Columbia pictures. Suddenly I had to be the man who said 'No!'. My job was to tell 9 out the 10 people who came into my office, that they couldn't do something. It was awful.

What it made me realise, once I had gotten over the initial excitement of having got this terribly important position, is that this kind of job was not for me. I just wanted to be the 1 in 10 person that got the 'Yes!'. I wanted to leave MY own office with MY fist in the air!

My second film was a flop (The Pied Piper (1972)), but I learned so much doing it, and that really helped the third, That'll Be the Day (1973) to become a box office success.

So really you need to see everything, the good, and the terrible, as a learning curve.  It’s not always easy, but where you are now, who you are now, is the sum of all of these parts…

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