Lord David Puttnam
By John Galloway

"For 30 years I made movies, and each movie is an innovation in itself," explains Oscar winning Lord David Puttnam (above), speaking in that clear, soft, easily recognisable voice amidst the background buzz of the House of Lords visitors bar. "You start off with an idea and your job over a period of months, or years, is to bring it to the screen. If you didn't have either the guts, or the tenacity, or the patience to do that, you can't be a film maker." All of which are qualities he believes are necessary to see any innovation through; many of which he has to his credit, including several in education, one of his passions.

"The original  idea for NESTA was innovatory," he begins, talking about the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, which he helped to establish in 1998 with a specific brief to support and promote innovation. "The national Teaching Awards were in some respects an innovation," he continues, created despite opposition that considered them to be "meretricious" and "a waste of time". Then there is Skillset, his brainchild – motivated by what he perceived as the inadequacies of the National Film and Television School – which he chaired for ten years. "The flaw was that it only taught a certain number of elite grades. It didn't deal in the craft trades – electricians and plasterers, all the other skills you need to make a film." He was also the first chair of Futurelab when it was spun out from Nesta, and remains so today.

Overall David Puttnam is pleased with his creations, describing the Teaching Awards as "a huge success – not one scrap of complaint", although he considers NESTA under-funded. "Three hundred and fifty million? It should be a billion pound endowment." He is clear about why they are successful: "It always comes down to the quality of the people you hand over to run them. NESTA is a success today because the chap who runs it, Jonathan Kestenbaum, is a first-class chief executive. The Teaching Awards are a success because of the very, very good team of women who run them."

So how do you go about innovating? "I think successful innovation requires a series of preconditions. It starts with optimism, the ability to imagine things as they might be rather than as they are. Then it require the imagination to see what might be the factors that would drive change." But innovation is not simply change. "My concept of innovation requires a step change as opposed to incremental change, so time frames alter."

This requirement for fundamental rather than incremental change may be a factor in another characteristic he attributes to innovators. "I think that natural-born innovators are very impatient and the reason I have been luckier than most is that the movie industry taught me patience. You are always waiting for something, for somebody, for some decision."

Innovation 'requires a clarity of vision and purpose to guide it and keep it on track'

However, this doesn't mean that innovations suddenly appear out of the blue. "Innovation is necessarily iterative," David Puttnam believes, but it requires a clarity of vision and purpose to guide it and keep it on track. "The original idea has got to have a degree of purity to it. Always check what you are doing against the purpose of the original idea. Some things you are doing are clearly developments of the original idea. Sometimes what you are doing is effectively bastardising the original idea. So the important judgement is knowing the difference between the two."

This balance is a reflection of his combination of perfectionism and pragmatism. He accepts that sometimes there is a need for compromise. "But it is all about which compromises. In the case of film you can find yourself settling for compromises that will effectively destroy your movie; or you can come up with the type of compromises which may make your life a little more difficult but that don't show up on the screen. Like which hotel you decide to stay at."

There is also the matter of timing. "I always imagine things will happen sooner than they actually do. There are several things that I've done that, had I done them five years later, theywould have probably worked." However, there are occasions when it is equally important to take opportunities as and when they arrive. "I'm somewhat opportunistic. I tend to cruise the territory and all of a sudden I see an opportunity that exists to get something through."

Hanging on to an idea, staying with it, and watching for the moment to push it forward is one of the keys to success. Giving up easily, he believes, is the greatest barrier and is becoming something of a national problem.  "I would say lack of tenacity is a huge inhibitor. As a nation we are not nearly as tenacious as we once were. We seem to live in a culture that encourages people, should things not work out, to simply shrug and move on."

'Schools need to have rather higher expectations of their pupils'

While David Puttnam does not think that producing creative ideas can be learnt, he does believe there is much that schools can do. "I have a real problem with he word 'learnt'. I think it is possible to create environments in which ideas and people are that much more likely to flourish." Schools need to have rather higher expectations of their pupils and to ensure good quality relationships with staff, based on a mutuality of trust.

"The pupils have to absolutely believe that the school wants what is best for them, and the teachers have got to be prepared to be rather more truthful. We think that school is education and it isn't." It is a major factor, however, and here this film-maker-come-peer has some clear ideas about what should be on the curriculum.

"I think a particular type of education helps to create or stimulate innovative minds," he says. "For a lot of kids who want to go into the digital world, the most obvious job opportunity is as a 'coder' leading to becoming a digital designer. Once you understand coding you can use your imagination and move on. What skills do you need to be a coder? You need maths, you need physics, and you need English, obviously you need computing but you also need an understanding of the principles of art and design. We don't really have an education system that will offer you that particular mix of subjects. You need to re-imagine a far more cohesive curriculum that is able to embrace that range of subjects as as a totality."

It is the kind of thinking that underpins one of his current projects, a Digital Skills Academy, an establishment where "the things I know kids want to do become possible because we are prepared to rethink our attitudes to what a curriculum is – or might be".

'The video game is probably the most powerful learning tool that's ever been created'

Much of the learning would be through digital means as David Puttnam is convinced that: "The video game is probably the most powerful learning tool that's ever been created, and if we can only get the software right, as it were 'connect up the pieces', we could create something utterly remarkable."

His entrepreneurial perspective also sees a way of encouraging developers to design such games. "I'm arguing that the government should offer a tax benefit to the best games manufacturers who make games with a clear cultural aspect to them; rather like there is a tax benefit that's available to people who make British films. I'm arguing we could do the same with the games business and divert some of the best brains into seeing education as the way in which they could not only create compelling games but also actually achieve significant profits."

In the end, however, he believes that the impetus for innovative change in education will come from young people themselves. "There are only two real choices here. Either schools find a way of engaging with, and using, the type of digital media that kids are familiar with, or the kids themselves come to the conclusion that school has got nothing to do with them and their world. The only loser here will be education as we know it. It is absolutely incumbent on the world of education to find the means of using as tools the creativity, the technologies and the media that young people naturally gravitate towards."

Conditions for innovation

  • Optimism - to believe that change is possible.
  • Imagination - to conceive what can be done.
  • Opportunism - taking the chances that arise, sometimes from other emerging fields.
  • Impatience - a desire for a step change, not simply an incremental one.
  • Tenacity - being prepared to see an idea through in the long term.
  • Clarity of purpose - protect the purity of an idea, making nuanced judgements about the compromises that might be necessary to see it to fruition.
  • High expectations - of yourself, and those you need to take an idea forward.


Sources for inspiration

  • David Puttnam says that he finds himself "Massively inspired by being around young people. That's been the most important part of my life for the past 15 years."
  • Although others have also clearly had an impact along the way, "The ultimate hero of my life is my dad. My dad was an extraordinary person. He was a press photographer. He was very, very good at what he did."
  • While school did not have a significant impact on him, something stuck. "There is only one teacher at my school who was very very influential – my history teacher Miss Kirkpatrick. She was great because she had this overwhelming passion for her subject; thanks to her I still love history."
  • The House of Lords, too, has provided sources of inspiration. "Without doubt there more free thinkers in the Lords than in the Commons. I listen to more genuinely radical stuff here than you'll ever hear down the other end of the corridor. I think there is a maturity of thought that exists up here, articulated by some extraordinarily bright people." As an example he cites David Shepherd, the former Bishop of Liverpool, and England cricket captain. "When I first came here I had the privilege of sitting next to David Shepherd. He was most fantastic man, the first bishop to choose to sit on the Labour benches."

Teaching Awards

John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.