Film legend says conditions in our schools are a disgrace
David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning film producer and chancellor of the Open University, does not pull his punches in his assessment of the Irish education system.
The British Labour party peer, who has lived in Co Cork for over 20 years, was highly critical of the state of Irish schools when I met him last week. He was in Dublin for the Irish Teaching and Learning Festival.
"This is not a Third World country, but you still have Third World conditions in some schools,'' says Puttnam. "There are still schools with outside toilets. Some of them are what you would see in a Roddy Doyle book.''
Forced to leave school when he was 16, Puttnam has become a passionate advocate of raising standards in education. He became a leading figure in education during the New Labour era.
Asked how why he was so preoccupied with the schooling system: "I am passionate about education, because I didn't get any myself. When I left school early, I went to night school. So, I am a great believer in lifelong learning.''
In a number of roles in education, including as chairman of the UK Teaching Council and currently as chancellor of the Open University, Puttnam has visited hundreds of schools in Britain. He has also visited many schools in Ireland. He believes 20% of our schools are worse than anything that can be seen in Britain.
"When you look at the amount of money that was spent on unused and useless buildings across Ireland, and then look at the state of some primary and secondary schools, it's a national disgrace.
'If a fraction of the money that was pissed away on speculative deals was put into physical infrastructure of primary and second level schools in the country, we would have the basis for rebuilding the society.''
As a prominent education campaigner, Puttnam acknowledges that there are also problems with British schools.
"At least in Britain, there is a consciousness of the inadequacy of the school system. In Ireland, people think it is an accident that has happened. It is only when you raise it at a conference that people say, 'Yes, they are crap'.''
Puttnam says many people in Ireland have the attitude to schooling -- "Well, it was good enough for me.''
While he is scathing about the physical state of Irish schools, he is positive about the standard of teaching.
"Overall, I would say that the quality of teaching is better than in Britain. When I came here in 1988 I noticed that teaching was still recognised as a first-class job and that teachers should be respected.
"That attitude may have been eroded over the years, but there is still a residue of it.
"Another advantage in Ireland is that you do not have the gaping class divide that we have in Britain.''
Puttnam says that he has tried, in his work, to enhance the respect for teaching as a profession. He is positive about its future.
"In Britain, we are now seeing the emergence of a young generation of sophisticated young teachers who are comfortable with new technology. They are starting a mini-revolution in the classroom. I am not sure I detect this happening in Ireland yet''
Having attended night classes in marketing and design, Lord Puttnam worked in advertising before becoming a producer of films, including Chariots of Fire, Local Hero and The Mission.
With his background in film, he is a great believer in the importance of digital literacy.
"We need teachers that understand new technology and are able to teach students how to read and interpret images.''
Puttnam says schools need to adapt to the life beyond their gates, which has been transformed over the past 20 years. He argues that the model of 20 or 30 students in neat rows facing a single teacher is an anachronism in an era of touch-screen smartphones, tablet computers and whiteboard technology
"Either schools find a way of engaging with, and using, the type of digital media that young people are familiar with, or the kids themselves will come to the conclusion that school has little or nothing to do with them and their world -- and increasingly, at least emotionally, opt out.''
In the age of the Apple iPad, the internet and a treasure trove of knowledge that should be available in seconds, teachers are more crucial than ever, according to Puttnam.
"Although young people may be very smart about using the technology, there remain considerable challenges in helping them to sort the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the valuable from the useless.
"We need to help them to understand the ways in which digital images can distort, at the same time as appearing to shape, the world around them.''
"It will be the skilled teacher, adept at handling the most recent technology, who will increasingly become society's greatest asset.''
Although he is critical of the infrastructure in Irish schools, David Puttnam is optimistic that the penny will drop in Ireland that an improved education system will be the cause of national renewal.