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OU 40th anniversary lectures: The race between education and catastrophe

Updated Friday, 19th June 2009

With a glance back at his own life path and the history of our educational system, Lord Puttnam highlights the challenge of preparing young people to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

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Copyright The Open University


Lord Puttnam
Thank you very much indeed. The purpose, obviously, of this evening, at least in part, is to enjoy a brief moment of celebration.

But as I know, as well as many, forty can be a dangerous age. So what I really want to do over and above anything else in the next twenty five minutes is to say a little about where I see the world of education and learning heading over the next decade or more and the role of the OU within that new, and increasingly quite difficult, world.

I am anxious to bring home to you the fact that “the world is no longer country size, no longer state size, no longer nation size. It's a world in which we must all get along together”.

Now, to a great extent, that remark is utterly self-evident but it was far from self-evident at the time that the US President, Harry Truman, first said it in June, 1945. Looking around at the wreckage of what had been Europe, he had come to the startling conclusion that all of humankind was in this mess together. And that theme, the need for collective action, will I hope recur and inform much of what I have to say this evening.

Almost exactly two years ago I was installed as the fifth Chancellor of this Institution, after ten happy and thoroughly productive years occupying the same position at the University of Sunderland. On that day, during my acceptance speech, I tried to convey the tremendous sense of pride I felt and continue to feel in taking up what I see as a significant role in an extremely important institution.

My reasons were, and remain, relatively simple. Not only is this the university that most closely acquaints to my own rather bumpy academic journey but it's also the repository of the dreams of hundreds of thousands who, exactly like me, thought that any chance of higher education had for whatever reason entirely passed them by.

As you've just heard, I've spent thirty years as a movie producer as well as any number of activities, - some odd, some less odd but I've devoted the past dozen years working in one or other area of public policy, most particularly in education. Now this has offered me the opportunity to engage with people who every single day of their working lives are attempting to mould the building blocks, the quality of which will unquestionably determine the future of this planet.

Those building blocks are learners of every kind, from young to old, and the people I've found myself working with are their teachers. And if the future looks increasingly like a war, then this most recent generation of teachers are pretty well the only infantry that we've got. And the war I am referring to is of course war between what I believe to be our failed past and the possibility of a far more imaginative future.

That word “war” is a tough word to hurl out at the beginning of a lecture. I just hope that fifteen minutes from now you'll agree that it's not wholly inappropriate because in essence it's a war between our worst and our better selves. It's also the case that everything – and I really do mean everything - that I've learnt through my work in cinema, for UNICEF and in various spheres of government have only reinforced my view that ,in the words of the author and scientist H G Wells, the future really is in every sense a race; “a race between education and catastrophe”. And finding the prospect of catastrophe pretty unattractive I have been only too happy to throw my energy behind improving the quality, the reputation and the relevance of education.

Al Gore, brilliantly to my mind, caught one aspect of this war in his film An Inconvenient Truth. But what struck me when I was watching it was that our ultimate success hung to an almost terrifying degree on the emergence of a significantly smarter and rather more engaged global society, a generation of people with the skills and the attitudes that might steer this world of ours to a far safer place than at present looks likely.

H G Wells was right. If catastrophe is to be avoided, then education has to triumph. I decided that just as An Inconvenient Truth had been the catalyst for a wider and rather better informed debate around climate change what was now needed was a similar debate focusing on the future of education. And, after almost a year of effort, here this evening is a sort of world première, if you like; a glimpse of the opening seven minutes of what at present remains very, very much a work in progress. I hope you will like it.


President Clinton
“My Number one priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world.”

Prime Minister, Tony Blair
“Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: Education, education, and education.”


#Stating your opinion
Making it ring in my head all day

And you say
My children weren't the same
My children's children they're the ones to blame
In my day we were better behaved
But it's not your day
No more...
We are the youth of today
change our hair in every way
We are the youth of today
we'll say what we want to say
And we are the youth of today
don't care what you have to say at all#

Sir Ken Robinson, author

“We are all of us facing huge challenges. And they're growing daily in severity, in scale and in complexity. It's no exaggeration to say that they're not going to go away. Indeed, they will get worse unless we can start to find solutions and find them soon.”


“If we are going to survive, we desperately need the next generation to be smarter, more adaptable and better prepared than any that have gone before.”

“The UK has one of the highest rates of …. In Europe.”

“… chance is to improve the way we teach our young, to find the way that makes the most of their talents and a way to help them face the challenges of the modern world.”


“So the question is: does our current education system work?”

“we'll say what we want to say
And we are the youth of today
don't care what you have to say at all -”

“What we have is a system that’s shaped by historical forces but they are now almost totally bankrupt as ideas for education in the Twenty First Century and I think they are betraying most of our children.”


“Public systems of education, paid for from taxation were invented to meet the needs of the Industrial Economy that was emerging in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries where we needed a workforce who could do certain sorts of things.”

Newsreel soundtrack
“Our ordinary workmen have a tradition of skill behind them.”

Governor Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education

“The high schools of today were centrally designed in the nineteenth century and they reached their zenith in the 1950s. In the old days we would say, “one size fits all”. Okay – thirty kids. Put them in a classroom – we’re going to teach them the same material. You're all expected to get it the same way.”

“…. 56 boy, page 56 ..”

Dr Sandra Venton Gray, Lecturer in Education, University of East Anglia
“There's a great emphasis on lining up and bells and, you know, these vast movements from room to room a bit like the movement of vast tribes really, all at key times, bottle necks, putting children in age cohorts, regardless of whether that’s got any purpose at all.”

Dr Cream Wright, Global Chief of Education for UNICEF
“In the old days it used to be the teacher, the man or woman, the person up front who knows it all. And here are these young people who are listening to this person who knows it all and they take it all in and if it's a good teacher you know you all get it and move on.”

Dr Sandra Venton Gray

“There's a tendency to look backwards. Well there was a goal in the age of education and if we just get back to that you know everybody will be absolutely fine; all wearing blazers and, you know, boaters and sort of do reading and writing and arithmetic.”

Potebam, potebas, potebat
Potebam, potebas, potebat, cricket bat …

Dr Cream Wright
“Schools become steeped in history, in the past, in static knowledge and fail to capture the here and now. And schools are failing to prepare young people for contemporary society, for the realities of the world in which we are living. And even more significantly fail to prepare young people for the emerging issues of our time."

Dr Sandra Venton Gray
“How is this helping our children in terms of what they're going to be as adults? In twenty-five years time we don’t really know what it's going to be like. How adaptable are they going to be? How versatile are they going to be and how confident are they going to be?”

Annika Small, Former Chief Executive of Futurelab
“Students who are starting school this year are likely to be retiring around 2065. Given that we can't predict with any certainty what the world’s going to look like in ten years or even perhaps five years, the very best that we can do is prepare young people for a rapidly changing, social, technological and economic environment; that they’ll need to be the most flexible, collaborative, resilient, creative generation that really have ever been.”

Bill Bryson, author

“Education is, I really think, is the most fundamental challenge facing human beings, you know. Their education will be the key to solving all the other problems that we've got.”

Lord Puttnam
And it goes on. I think – I am hoping we will have finished it in June of this year.





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