Only arts can save us from civil war, says Puttnam

Film producer says the future looks increasingly bleak unless we embrace imaginative education

The social future for Britain looks so "bleak" that its only hope lies with its teachers and how they educate the next generation, Lord Puttnam will warn in a lecture today.

In a society blighted by violence and depravity among its youth, he will say: "If – certainly as I see it – the future looks increasingly bleak, almost a form of 'war' – then teachers, most particularly primary school teachers, are pretty well the only 'infantry' available to us.

"It's not that I simply want a more imaginative future – it's more the case that... there won't be much of a future of any sort unless we're prepared to become significantly more imaginative – most particularly in respect of the way in which we educate people."

Lord Puttnam will present the lecture at the Association of Art Historians' 38th Annual Conference today. Taking place at the Open University, Milton Keynes, it will be attended by 500 international academics, artists, curators, architects and musicians.

He will call for the nation to accept the role that the arts can play for individuals and communities, but say that it must find a way of paying for them: "Really great art can reach out to touch that spirit across generations, as well as across wholly differing cultures."

Over 30 years, Lord Puttnam was an independent producer who made some of the UK's finest films including Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Local Hero and Midnight Express. He retired from film-making 15 years ago to devote himself to public life, notably education, the environment and media regulation. Chariots of Fire the uplifting, 1981 four-time Oscar-winning film about British athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams has been digitally-remastered and will be released in cinemas for the 2012 Olympics.

Such is the power of the arts to change lives that the film deterred several suicides. Lord Puttnam reveals: "Over the years I've received at least a dozen letters from people claiming that the film actually persuaded them not to end their own lives; it gave them exactly the kind of lift they needed at a time of crisis." His direct experience backs extensive anecdotal evidence that engagement with the arts inspires "self-confidence, empathy and teamwork," emphasising that the arts "have a value both for the individual's self-development and for nurturing our sense of connection to others". He will also remind his audience that "one measure of any community wishing to regard itself as truly civilised is the quality and depth of its artistic achievement".