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Podium: We must remain a creative nation

David Puttnam

From a speech by the film-maker launching a Royal Shakespeare Company/Channel 4 television series

EVIDENCE FROM around the world suggests that in the 21st century, a successful meshing of arts and education is likely to become even more essential to social stability and economic success. William Morris - a great artist and educationist, and one of my personal heroes - looked forward to the time when "all men would be artists and the audience for art would be nothing short of the whole people".

For years, we in Britain were trying to emulate the ruthless efficiency of the Japanese education system, which we identified with their underlying economic success. And yet, now - when they are in the midst of economic crisis - now they are desperately trying to acquire the skills that have always made us different: our creativity, our imagination, our flair. In a paper delivered in 1995 by the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives, the following observation was made:

"The post-war educational system in Japan sought to eliminate deviations in students and deliver an equally uniform education throughout the land. Now, however, the nation is in need of highly creative and independent individuals. Fostering individuals with these characteristics will require educational reform, taking at least 10 to 20 years to be effective."

And in many areas we are riding high just now. We may not have the resources to fund movies that cost a couple of hundred million dollars, but we have got the wit, the talent and the downright oomph to create something as terrific as The Full Monty with just three million. And out of small acorns, big trees do grow.

Last year, our so-called creative industries generated a turnover of pounds 54bn: that's more than our automobile and steel manufacturing industries combined. By supporting leaders across the creative industries, leaders such as the RSC, we are in fact supporting a wealth of secondary industries, because these craft professionals act as teachers and an inspiration to others in related fields, attracting audiences to this country and leading by example to provide countless jobs and incomes in other industries.

I think our increasing prosperity as a creative nation is being recognised and must now be built upon, and the only way to do this is through education. That's one of the reasons why it's imperative that we get the context in which we teach, and the context of the national curriculum, absolutely right. We must all guard vigilantly against the danger of allowing arts education to be marginalised, unnecessarily sacrificed at the altar of the numeracy and literacy targets.

Don't get me wrong; I am a great supporter of the notion that we have to ensure that every child leaves school with a rock-solid foundation in the basic skills, and those skills they will need to make anything really worthwhile of their lives. Setting measurable targets is a fundamental imperative if we are to achieve the levels of improvement that are necessary.

Education is about developing the perception, the attitudes and the ability to learn that will allow the free spirit of the individual to emerge, and, when ready, to fly. I can honestly say, for instance, that I've never been asked to list the names of the heavy metals since school, and I've certainly never been asked how long it would take six women to dig an 8-ft ditch if it takes two women six-and-a-half hours to dig 18in.

That's why, speaking as a non-expert, Howard Gardner's view of multiple intelligences seems to be an eminently sensible one. That means that learning maths isn't about the intricacies of trigonometry; it's about learning to sit still and concentrate. It's about problem solving, and just not giving up. And literacy isn't just about cats sitting on mats; it's about communication, through which we gain a better understanding of what it is to be human.

I would also like to suggest that the arts are necessary not only as an autonomous part of a well rounded education. They can no longer be viewed as a lightweight division from the more taxing and serious subjects of maths and science. Increasingly, research is showing how artificial that schism really is, that we appear to have created between the arts and the sciences.

For instance (and without wishing to get technical), research has shown that symmetrical or cordant sound, such as that in a Mozart piano concerto, is transmitted faster to the brain's neurons than discordant information, which means that, simply put, music can help learning.

My message to you all is: please don't stop here. Go on thinking about ways of marrying the objectives of the best of your arts and creative projects with the world of education.