"The truth is that the laptop has to be as ubiquitous as the pen is now"

5th January 2001 at 00:00
The education software and hardware market must evolve if schools are to benefit from world-class products, says education evangelist David Puttnam. He talks to Chris Johnston.

David Puttnam's sober suit and neat grey beard do not quite match the bright purple and yellow chairs in the meeting room of his company, Enigma Productions.

The office is located just a stone's throw from the Department for Education and Employment headquarters and the House of Lords - two places where the film producer turned education evangelist spends a considerable amount of time.

It's a sunny Friday morning and Lord Puttnam of Queensgate - to give him his proper title - is running slightly late, and rattles off some instructions to his small team of staff before sitting down to talk.

As befits someone who now wears a plethora of hats (including chairman of the General Teaching Council; council member of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency; member of the DFEE's standards task force; a trustee of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts; chancellor of Sunderland University; and a governor of the London School of Economics) he seems to be able to think about a dozen things at once, while still concentrating on the task at hand.

Lord Puttnam will give the TES keynote address at next week's BETT educational technology exhibition, as well as present gongs to the winners of the first Becta ICT in Practice Awards, sponsored by BT and supported by the TES. He is no stranger to such ceremonies, having instigated the National Teaching Awards.

The ICT honours will serve the same purpose as the "Platos" - focusing attention on what the best teachers are doing in the classroom. "If you didn't have awards you couldn't do that," Puttnam says.

Using technology effectively in the classroom depends as much on good software and resources as the hardware, a fact he has long championed through his calls to make educational programmes as compelling for pupils as PlayStation games. Learning and technology minister Michael Wills is sympathetic, but Puttnam is adamant that the DFEE is not doing enough to foster a vibrant education software market.

"You're only going to get real action from the private sector when the Government has identified what the marketplace might be, and that has to do with a raft of issues like kitemarking, consolidation and LEA purchasing arrangements." The way software is bought by schools is, in Puttnam's view, responsible for the small, fragmented market.

He contends that there is a "deep ignorance" about the conditions needed to develop a buoyant industry. To encourage developers to make world-class software, they have to know they can make a healthy profit. This is only possible if volume goes up and prices go down; by encouraging schools to buy certain products gven the seal of approval by a body such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Such benchmarking would make them "feel secure about the pedagogic value" and start to nurture the market, according to Puttnam, although many software publishers and the industry body, the British Educational Suppliers Association, are horrified by the idea that some programs should be officially endorsed while others are not.

No matter how we do it, Puttnam insists that Britain can be a world player in this game if we capitalise on our strengths. However, the UK's downfall could be the "cottage industry" mentality, allowing a company such as Disney or AOLTime Warner to triumph. "I have no problem with people running software businesses from their front room if their dream is to run them from enormous tower blocks in Mayfair, but that is usually not the case. We need to understand that the winner in the education software delivery business will be a very, very big company."

Puttnam feels the industry needs to model itself on the film and television business, in which the ideas often come from cottage outfits, while the products are delivered by big business.

He adds that it is also "insane" not to be developing educational software for the new PlayStation 2, which in his view will be the platform of choice for young people.

Current thinking about hardware provision in schools is another concern. Rather than the number of computers per student, he says the issue is how much "managed learning time" is available to each pupil.

Puttnam acknowledges that laptops are very much a stopgap, yet says they must be embraced if technology is really going to change the way students learn. "The truth is that in the end, the laptop has to be as ubiquitous as the pen." Teachers also need personal access to a computer if they are expected to use them in their teaching.

As an outsider on the inside, Puttnam says the only influence he can hope to have is in helping teachers believe in themselves and convincing ministers just how badly Britain needs a world-class teaching profession.

Although the Government is receptive to his ideas, he thinks our "risk averse and blame-heavy" society sometimes makes ministers reluctant to experiment.

Some wonder why Puttnam has taken such a keen interest in an area outside his field, and question his motivation. Whatever his reasons, he is certainly not in it for the money and his commitment to, and enthusiasm for doing what he can for education is difficult to fault.

While some of his ideas raise hackles, Puttnam seems to be one of the few people trying to think outside the box, which can only help British education.

Lord Puttnam will deliver the TES keynote address, Teachers Make a Difference - What about ICT?, at the BETT 2001 show on Thursday, January 11 at 11am.

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