Passed/Failed: An education in the life of David Puttnam, film producer and Open University Chancellor

'I'm really an academic catastrophe'
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The Independent Online

Lord Puttnam, 66, worked in advertising before becoming a producer of films, including Chariots of Fire, Local Hero and The Mission. He is a Labour peer, the UK President of Unicef and the Chancellor of the Open University. The National Teaching Awards, which he founded ten years ago, will be televised at 6pm on Sunday on BBC2. Nominations for 2008 can be made at

I had a genuinely difficult issue at Oakwood Primary School in Southgate, north London. At age eight I was very good at mental arithmetic. We'd stand up and answer questions; then we would do "long mathematics", that is, the same questions but on paper and showing the workings. This time I would get them wrong, even though they were the same questions. This is not at all unusual – there's probably even a Greek name for it – but my teacher Miss Fletcher decided I was being obdurate and she used to whack me around my short-trousered legs and I'd go home covered in wheals.

I started truanting, just for the maths lesson. I was eventually caught in the high street and taken to Miss Flint, the headmistress. My mother went ballistic – at Miss Fletcher – and Miss Flint took a dim view of her too.

Because of this I'd lost all interest in maths, to the extent that I wasn't even allowed to take the maths O-level. Despite that, all my life I've used mental arithmetic; the film industry is all about juggling resources.

My two best friends, who were unquestionably at least as bright as me, were sitting on each side of me when I took the 11-plus. I passed because my mother had bought me a copy of previous exam questions; they didn't pass and I never saw either of them again.

I was desperately keen to be a success at Minchenden Grammar but they made a decision early on which kids were likely to get to university, preferably Oxford and Cambridge. If you were not one of those, they were apathetic towards you. I'd consider myself an academic catastrophe. I made the decision that the best thing to do was not to be noticed and leave as soon as I could.

I took five O-levels and got three; I failed geography by one mark. Just before leaving, I was summoned to a meeting with the careers master. "Well, Puttnam, having wasted five valuable years of your own and everybody else's lives, you've proved to the examiner's satisfaction that you're not all that bright – but you're personable enough, so I suggest you think very seriously about becoming a 'rep'... it's certainly the only way you'll ever end up owning a car." "What – like a kind of van driver, sir?" "No boy, you could have gone to a secondary modern if you'd wanted to do that."

The only prize I won at school was a poster for a competition about education in the world; I did a kid in a classroom with his head as a globe. Winning with that poster at 16 was enough to convince me that the right career was advertising.

I needed four O-levels for the course in marketing at the College of Distributive Trades in central London; I said that I had re-taken geography. I was there for three years of night classes and at St Martin's College of Art for the next two years doing a design course. At the same time I was a messenger at an advertising agency and then an assistant account executive, which is the lowest form of life except being a messenger. From the ages of 17 to 22 I would leave home at 7.30am and get back at 10.30pm.

I believe in life-long learning. As Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, I gave a graduation certificate to a grandmother, her daughter and her grand-daughter – on the same day.