Inspiring Citizenship Conference
Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, CBE
As delivered to:
Monday, January 24, 2005
Thank you, Michael [Maclay; Chairman, Citizenship Foundation], for that kind introduction.
I'm now well and truly retired from the film industry. Most of my work over the past seven years having been in education. I've been an advisor to the Department for Education and Skills, I've the privilege of serving as Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, and I've just retired as chair of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, more popularly known as NESTA.
In many respects, these past few years have been a period of very considerable change for me. And, I have to say, all the more challenging and enjoyable for it. The prospect of trudging up and down Wardour Street for a few more years – with a script under my arm, hoping against hope that some pimply twenty five old might consider financing my next film, did not exactly fill me with joy.
By contrast I've found my time working in education far and away the most fulfilling of my professional life. It's been my enormous privilege to visit literally hundreds of schools as well as any number of universities and colleges of further education, and to meet many thousands of teachers.
So please believe me when I tell you that teachers at every level of the education system in the UK are, without question, the most interesting and stimulating group of people I've ever worked with, and, for the most part, much more entertaining than the majority of 'so-called' entertainers I've known!
I only have to contrast the people I meet each year at the Teaching Awards, with the people I tend to rub shoulders with at BAFTA – and on just about every count the teachers win hands-down! So I'm at something of a loss to understand why society at large fails to recognise the enormous, in fact the unique contribution the profession makes to both its present and future well-being.
But this afternoon, I intend to speak in a rather more personal capacity, and, precisely because of my own enthusiasm and commitment to the creative arts, to speak from somewhat closer to my direct professional experience.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, I'd like to share some reflections on the importance of the arts and creativity within education; firstly to talk about developing artistic excellence as an end in itself, before touching on the broader issue of citizenship.
Let's begin by going back to first principles. Why do we value creativity and the arts? Throughout human history, art has been the means by which we've sought to make connections between ourselves and what for sake of dignifying the debate we will call the 'cosmos'; to express the inexpressible, to make the invisible visible, and to give shape to the shapeless. It represents the sum total of our attempts to explain the world to ourselves and to each other. As the French playwright Jean Anouilh once put it, "Life is all very well. But it lacks form. It is the purpose of art to give it some".
I've always believed that the arts are the lifeblood of any society worth the name. They can help bring people together; they represent a way of allowing us to focus on our shared values, emotions and vulnerabilities. Art, as Anouilh recognised, is not just a way of understanding the world, but a means of coming to terms with it – most especially during troubled times such as those we are presently living through.
Art also has the power to mark-out the truly personal moments in each of our lives. Birth, death, love, family, in fact all of our great joys and losses; each and every one of these seemingly unique emotions is captured, immortalised and reflected back to us by the power of really great art, be it in the form of paintings, poetry, music and even the movies.
An American social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, captured this thought beautifully when he said, "it is not so much the examples of others we imitate, as the reflection of ourselves in their eyes, and the echo of ourselves in their words." I think that's about the best description of the visual arts, most especially cinema, I've ever come across.
Britain has always had a particularly strong tradition of creative achievement. Over the centuries we have, at different times, excelled in writing, music, architecture and the theatre. Equally, in the more contemporary forms of creativity, such as filmmaking and design, time and again, that excellence has been recognised – as our success at the Oscars over the last fifty years clearly demonstrates; a success out of all proportion to our size and importance as a film-making nation.
Without being boastful, I think it's fair to say that British architects, designers, filmmakers and painters are legitimately hailed the world over. Our achievements are also represented in a more concrete form; from the Tate Modern to the RSC, from the Edinburgh Festival to the new Gateshead Music Centre; in all of these you see the physical embodiment of our growing commitment to the arts.
In many respects, Creativity, or at least, originality has always been one of our defining national characteristics. A characteristic that sets us apart from many if not most of the other nations in the world. It's a characteristic we cherish – or ought to! A characteristic that, as I'll argue later, represents something of a special advantage in the modern world.
But this 'tradition' of artistic excellence and creativity has not just magically fallen from the sky; in fact it is, and always has been, fundamentally linked back to our system of education and training. And unless we continue to actively nourish and develop the arts, and the creativity that goes with them, then this great tradition I refer to is all too likely to "wither on the vine".
There are, of course, individual geniuses who emerge and flourish as a result of some peculiar combination of genetics, the position of the stars or maybe one or other form of cultural or geographical circumstance. We don't know why this happens, and we will probably never develop sufficient understanding of its genesis for any generally applicable lessons about the nurturing of the creative spirit to emerge; it remains one of the mysteries of art and indeed of life. I've now reached a point in my life when I rather hope it stays that way!
But for the most part, the foundations of artistic and creative excellence are laid down within our education system - or they are not laid down at all. Creative skills such as imagination and concentration, team-work and problem-solving, co-ordination and spatial awareness are all principally developed at school. Activities such as reading, playing music, creative writing, dance and acting every one of them contributes to the development of a very special set of skills.
I've seen at first hand from my visits to schools around the country just how powerful participation in these activities can be. Most especially for children and young people for whom participation in many of these activities is in some way compromised, by reason of physical or mental disability, or even on occasion, by home circumstance.
Equally important to the development of these skills is access to the arts. Access can mean something as simple as a visit to a local theatre or art gallery. These visits can plant the seeds of creative ambition every bit as much as classroom work. We know only too well how strongly children are influenced by "example"; the strength of their desire to emulate those they admire. To recognise, as that quote from Eric Hoffer puts it, "the reflection of ourselves (themselves) in the eyes of others".
Just in case I'm beginning to sound too complacent, I've often reflected on the fact that, had the world been as lackadaisical over the discovery and nurturing of sources of energy, most especially oil, as it has been in its commitment to discovering and nurturing talented individuals – then we'd have long ago had to give up cars and switch most of our lights off!
That's a point worth making, because this world is going to need the commitment of every talented human being it can lay its hands on, if it's to survive this very difficult twenty-'first' century.
Access to artistic performance can be one of the very strongest means of stimulating and then harnessing creative ambitions, of turning them into something that will cause a young person to rise to heights they didn't realise they were capable of achieving. Everyone of you has seen it happen – that's probably why you do what you do!
Access to art is, in short, not only something that can bring great rewards in its own right, but also a vital gateway to participation. In fact, education, access, and participation are indissolubly linked. It pays to remind ourselves – and policymakers – of this rather simple truth from time to time. Education, access and participation are but three sides of exactly the same triangle.
Personal fulfillment, public confidence and a richer understanding of the social and cultural context they inhabit, these are all things which flow from studying and participating in the creative arts.
And crucially, technology now has the potential to transform access and participation in the creative arts, with real and exciting implications for the teaching of this whole spectrum of activity.
Let me dwell on the issue of technology for a moment.
For the past decade, I've been arguing passionately to anyone who will listen that our education system must actively and energetically respond to the transformations which are being brought about by technology, and by digital technology in particular. It is beginning to do so; but we have not moved anything like far or fast enough.
For it's my belief that, intelligently and effectively used, digital technology has the ability to revolutionise the way that children and young people – in fact all of us – learn. And it also has the potential to revolutionise the practice of teaching, making teachers significantly more powerful and effective.
Let me try to put all this in context by explaining why I think citizenship is so important to the curriculum. And why developments in technology and creativity are important.
Fostering the arts and creativity is just one of the tasks that is necessary if we are to create an educational system that is really appropriate to the needs of the 21st Century.
What my work in the public sector has most forcibly brought home to me is the fundamental necessity for creating an education system capable of equipping all of our young people with the knowledge and skills they're going to need to steer a course through this incredibly complex, globalised world.
In other words, creating citizens for a new world order in the fullest sense of the word, not just 'consumers' or 'customers' but citizens! A stable economy may be the key to 'sustainability' but that does not mean reducing individuals to the role of economic androids.
Nor should it mean that the 'individual' is encouraged to simply assert a whole slew of rights without any commensurate acceptance of their responsibilities. I think most of us have come to accept that any society, or indeed community, worth the name must be built on an acknowledgement that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. That for me is a fundamental truth that lies behind the whole concept of citizenship.
It's why I've been such a strong supporter of the introduction of "citizenship" into the National Curriculum. One of its values is that it prepares young people to face the 'leadership' challenges of tomorrow. (mention recent experience in the Occupied Territories) It prepares them to look beyond narrow self-interest and expediency, and to see themselves as part of an interdependent world. The decision to press for its inclusion in the core curriculum was a good example of strategic leadership; a vision which looks beyond quick wins, and instead focuses on to the medium to long-term.
Citizenship enables young people to understand that our society is about a 'balance' between rights and responsibilities. The teaching of citizenship should help to develop an understanding of why the two are intrinsically linked. But more broadly, I believe that the teaching of citizenship should enable young people to understand the importance of the political realm – at a time when levels of political interest and engagement among young people have been steadily in decline.
But young citizens also need access to the tools which will enable them to compete in the globalised economy, an economy in which the mobility of investment and skills is greater than ever before.
Let's face it, under-achievement is no longer an option. Not for our children, not for our teachers and not for our schools. It's a luxury that none of us can any longer comfortably afford, because not only do we face the challenge of globalisation, we also inhabit an economy in which a full complement of knowledge and skills are at an ever greater premium.
So there can be no return to the bad old days, the days when, to borrow a thoroughly dispiriting phrase, it was perfectly acceptable to see state education as "a poor service for poor people."
We have to raise our game – if for no other reason than because other nations are already raising theirs. If you've the slightest doubt about that, visit, as I have in the last of couple of years, Beijing, Bombay, or Bosnia. There you'll find people pouring sometimes scarce resources, and every ounce of their energy into creating what they hope will become their own world-beating education system. They long ago realised that, where education is concerned, to settle for the lowest common denominator is simply not an option. They have already raised their game – and we have to do likewise. There simply isn't any serious alternative. The ambition to be "competent", to "get by", is no longer remotely adequate.
Together – heads, teachers, Local Authorities, parents, governors – I happen to believe we can make a success of the future. I believe we can deliver what our children and our grandchildren deserve. A world-class education system that delivers opportunity for all, that delivers skills for all; that delivers a tangibly better future for all of the people of this country.
And I'm not being financially simplistic – I repeat, the education service we need and our children deserve will become increasingly expensive. But making the right choices is what good government and real leadership is all about. All governments and administrations are effectively required to address the civilian equivalent of what the medical services call Triage; the sorting out of cases according to type, seriousness of injury, and likelihood of survival, in order to establish priority of treatment – painful and arbitrary as the process may be, this is the only way to ensure that limited resources are used as effectively as possible.
For me, that priority absolutely has to be education. I'm certainly not alone in believing that education, uniquely among all areas of public expenditure, is fundamentally both the cause, and the consequence, of a successful society.
H.G. Wells once memorably described civilisation as a "race, between education and catastrophe." Now more than ever we need to think about that. Otherwise we really could find ourselves in a new "War of the Worlds"; a war between the world of the "haves" and the "have-nots" – a war in which both sides can only be losers.
But it doesn't have to be that way – I repeat, we are not stupid people. Together we can achieve real and lasting success. The truth as we all know is that our future and that of our children depends on our ability to invest every scrap of time and resource available to build a society we can all be proud of.
Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, CBE
24 Jan 2005