Teaching the teachers

Teaching the teachers

When British education policymaker David Puttnam visited a school one day in 1998, he was aghast to find a rusty teaspoon in its staff room with a piece of plaster on it with the words: "Mr Jones. Do not touch."

Worse, says Lord Puttnam, the Mr Jones in question was not a quirky person. His colleagues wrote their names on their individual tea bags, fearful that others would nick them.

Recalling this to me last Saturday at the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts here, the 72-year-old says: "Of the three careers I've had - advertising, cinema and education - that was the greatest shock I've had.

"These teachers were working in conditions which no other professional sector in Britain would have tolerated for a moment. Yet they thought that was the way it was."

You may know him better from his films which won 10 Oscars in all, including Midnight Express (1978), Chariots Of Fire (1981) and The Killing Fields (1984). But since 1998, the Labour supporter has been helping Britain overhaul the way it teaches, after being invited by then Education Minister David Blunkett to arrest the rapid attrition among teachers.

His big idea, then, is that the entire culture of teaching as everyone knows it has to change, by getting teachers to stop dictating to their charges and start having lively classroom dialogues with them. "It's not just about literacy and numeracy," he stresses. "It's about teaching everyone to be agile, adaptable and resilient."

He was in town last week to speak at the inaugural World Academic Summit, which was co-organised by the Nanyang Technological University and university ranking body Times Higher Education. He also gave a talk at Lasalle- SIA, whose film school is named after him and whose students he teaches, mainly through video-conferencing from his home in Skibbereen, Ireland.

For five years, he also advised the Media Development Authority here.

But back to teaspoons and tea bags. "The level of infantilism was ridiculous," huffs Lord Puttnam, who began boosting teachers' morale by founding Britain's National Teaching Awards in 1998 and then the National Teaching Council in 2000. The humble married father of two notes sadly that Britain knighted its first teacher in 2008.

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