Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, CBE
Lord Puttnam began his keynote speech by describing the terrible experience of mathematics teaching he had suffered as a boy when his legs were slapped for getting an answer wrong at primary school and when, at secondary school, he had been subjected to constant humiliation by his mathematics teacher.
He pointed out that although things have massively improved, a recent study showed that the view that a student has of him- or herself is remarkably consistent with the teacher’s view, showing that our expectations of ourselves are formed very early and that, if damaging, are reflected back later in underachievement. This made the role of the teacher crucial: “The impact of a really good teacher is something that lasts for life.” He had heard the BBC’s Business Editor Robert Peston back this up recently when paying tribute to his own mathematics teacher.
Lord Puttnam said that the building blocks were in primary schools, with the teachers and with the ICT infrastructure, which must be ‘fit for purpose’. These were the keys to “a more imaginative future” and, “the most precious foundation on which we can build our future”.
Explaining that life had been utterly transformed beyond the school gates thanks to the digital revolution, he said: “We have no choice but to adopt new technologies.” The “treasure trove of knowledge” that the internet provided meant that teachers needed to become “trusted learning guides” who would help students take advantage of this source and be able to “sort the wheat from the chaff”.
Outstanding teachers would be needed with the confidence to do this. There was a choice: “Either schools will engage with digital media or the children will decide that schools have nothing to do with their lives.”
But the teacher and not the technology would be responsible for raising the bar. The skilled teacher would realise that the use of technology was crucial: “If learning is to be at the heart of the digital world then teachers are the lifeblood. No education system can be better than the quality of its average teacher.” Our definition of a ‘good teacher’ would change and the substance and skill of the role would alter to respond to children’s expectations.
Lord Puttnam felt that in the future the class of 30 students would be an anachronism. And, in a world where Skype exists, why, he asked, should English children not use the technology available to learn French from French children, or learn physics from a Nobel Prize winner? However, none of this meant that the three ‘R’s would no longer be important, we would have to embrace both.
All of this would challenge what we teach and why, he said. CPD would be critical to enhance skills and could not be farmed out to ‘the big society’: there would need to be a “meaningful financial contribution from central government”. He said that there was “a mountain of evidence that this is key” and that, as Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s the teachers stupid!”
Lord Puttnam believed that the curriculum was not flexible enough and would need to be thought through and restructured, but most important were the teachers: “Getting an education system right is ‘the whole ball of wax’ and no education system can be better than the teachers it employs.” Training must be well funded, he argued, as teachers needed to constantly improve.
Reaching his conclusion, Lord Puttnam said that young people would be the key to local and global renewal and a more sustainable society. He said that we had squandered a lot of opportunities and depleted natural resources and that this could only be reversed in our classrooms, where the leaders of the future would be created. It was vital that we offered them a better start in life than ever before because the challenges were colossal and the future of the planet depended upon it.
Listen to Lord Puttnam's speech in full: