An accumulation of knowledge gained through a grind school is not an education, film producer David Puttnam tells Education correspondent Jess Casey.
The cancellation of this summer’s Leaving Cert exams presents the perfect opportunity to reform the university admission process.
With Irish students sitting some form of written exams each summer for the last 95 years, we may never have a better opportunity to improve the current system.
That’s according to educator, Oscar-winner and digital advocate David Puttnam, who believes that now is the time to examine how students here get to third-level. Mr Puttnam was one of a number of people who called for this year’s Leaving Cert exams to be scrapped, due to the upheaval caused by the pandemic.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner back in April, he criticised the initial decision to postpone this year’s exams until late July, lamenting the lost opportunity to find a better method of assessment. Believing it was cruel to have delayed the exam until the end of summer, he called for an alternative to be managed through a system of predicted grades, and a swift appeals process.
This is, essentially, what was later decided on by the Department of Education. Cancelling the exams was the right call, Mr Puttnam still believes: “I do understand that from the Government’s point of view, it was the least worst option.
“There was no good option here, but having said that, what I think they’ve done is open up a fantastic opportunity for themselves.
“This is really a moment of opportunity for them. They have the chance now to do a total review of both the Leaving Cert exams and the university admissions process.
“If I was in government, I’d appoint an expert to carry out a full review of the system because they will never have a better opportunity to make a fresh start.”
Mr Puttnam is best known for his role in producing Hollywood blockbusters, including The Mission, The Killing Fields, and Chariots of Fire. Together, these films have collected 10 Oscars, 10 Golden Globes, 25 Baftas, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
He is also a member of Britain's House of Lords, a former president of Unicef UK, and he was Ireland’s first national digital champion. Since retiring from film production in 1998, he has focused on his work in education, the environment, and communications.
He is the chairman of Atticus Education, an online education company that he runs from his home in Skibbereen, West Cork.
While he understands the pressure teachers feel in regard to using predicted grades, the system is used in other jurisdictions to great success, he added.
“It comes with the job of being in education that you have to make judgements,” he said. “I genuinely don’t understand, and I am conscious that I am saying this with an English accent, why there is a slight neurosis here around the idea of conflicts of interest. Ireland is a small country, but so is Denmark, so is Finland, so is Estonia. Somehow they don’t seem to have to ask themselves those questions.
“I never really understood why. I absolutely trust the principals of schools, I absolutely trust teachers. I wouldn’t expect them to be assaulted in Supervalu. Teachers will make the best judgement that they can make.”
The vast majority of educators do not agree with the Leaving Cert, he believes, adding that he hopes a new way to get students to college can be found that sees less pressure hinged on just one set of exams.
“I think that one of the things that should also come out of this is much more engagement from universities, as part of an interview process,” he said. “One of the problems with the Leaving Cert is, theoretically, if you get the points you’re in. Yet, you might arrive at university and you are totally unsuited to both the course you got and the way you are going to be taught. It just doesn’t work for you.
“But that didn’t emerge the day you got your points. I think an interview process is really, really important. It should help to bring in people who have real potential because of the nature of their personalities, and not just people who have just done a few months of hard slog in a grinds school and got the points. That is not education. I can’t say it often enough, and educationalists know it.”
Today, Mr Puttnam is the president of Britain’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), having also sat on the admissions panel for many years.
“We used to have students who, on paper, looked great. They’d come in, and you’d go through all their stuff but then you’d ask ‘Oh, by the way what are your three favourite movies, and why?’ and they’d freeze. What you’d realise then is that there was no reason for them being there really, other than they thought it was a nice idea to be in the movie business.
“They’d done some research on the internet, but when you actually met them, you realised they were never going to make it in the field, it was never going to work for them because there was no passion there.”
He feels very strongly about “inappropriate life-defining exams”, likening the Leaving Cert to a set of British exams called the ‘eleven-plus'. "Those exams basically determined the whole rest of your life. If you passed, you went to a grammar school, you got to wear a blazer and you were taught French. That was a defining moment for kids. Sensibly they binned it because it was so patently unfair and unjust. The only reason I had passed is because my mother took herself up to London to a bookshop that sold old exam papers."