There was an actress, a newsreader and three athletes. But no swots

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The Independent Culture
We have something to cheer about at last - the 1999 Teaching Awards. Hurrah for them. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Faint though the candle of teaching flickers in our dark and naughty world, any light is better than no light.

You can measure a civilisation by how highly it values and rewards its teachers. So where does that leave us? A barbarian place, until every teacher we employ is reinvested with authority, once again called Sir or Miss, denominated a national treasure, and remunerated more generously than any disc jockey or controller of a television channel.

In the meantime, yes, yes, present them with a prize, put them on telly and make them famous for a night. They deliver better speeches than film stars do, wear altogether more sensible clothes, and if they cry they cry with reason.

That's the huzza-ing over. Now tell me something: why was Gaby Roslin chosen to co-host the ceremony with Stephen Fry? Fry I get. No real teacher ever looked more teacherly - too big for himself, harassed, bumbling, forever in need of a shampoo and scalp massage, but gentle-hearted at the last. What is more, he gives incontrovertible proof, whenever he opens his mouth and delivers whole sentences, that he has been taught. He has, if you like, the pedagogic air.

But what air does Gaby Roslin have? She appeared shell-shocked on the night, somewhat cavernous and singed around the cheeks, as though she had recently been strafed by Nato. And she enunciated very slowly and p.a.r.t.i.c.u.l.a.r.l.y, lest the however many hundreds of headmasters and headmistresses in the audience should be unable to keep up. It's always possible that she had confused her brief and thought she was addressing a hall-load of tots, not teachers; but by what education-associated criteria was she selected in the first place?

Forgive me for being cynical, but was someone somewhere in BBC1 wanting to dilute the pedagogic content of a pedagogic programme quick smart?

And here's another thing. An admirable actress, an admirable newsreader, an admirable film- producer, three admirable athletes and an increasingly preposterous Ritz-ballroom Prime Minister presented the awards to deserving teachers. Notice anyone missing? Not any individual, but any group? You have it in one: intellectuals, academics, the bookish, the swottish, people of the mind.

Let's remember what we were watching. An award ceremony recognising excellence in teaching. T.e.a.c.h.i.n.g. Is it really too far- fetched to suppose that at least one of the rewarded teachers would have felt more rewarded still had his or her favourite historian or scientist - for history and science, too, are taught in schools - been there to present the prize?

Linford Christie ran very fast in his prime and looked fetching in Lycra, but I'm not sure I would want him awarding me the palm for best syntax in a Saturday paper. Nothing personal. Just a hankering after fellow professionals. If someone's going to say "Well written, Howard, here's 20,000 smackers", I want it to be Harold Pinter.

The fault of BBC1 again? How would I know? Whom do you ask? The brain- dead do not hear you. But it looks that way. Whatever you do, don't scare away the punters with anyone they haven't seen in the last fortnight on Blankety-Blank or A Question of Sport. Neither of which programmes I am above watching, but that's hardly the point. One night of the year we get learning; is it too much, on that one night, to hear from the learned?

Silly question.

And anyway, we can't blame it all on telly, much as I would like to, unless telly has infiltrated the very deliberations of the Teaching Awards. For there was a demonstrable anti-intellectual bias already at work.

Teachers were cited for a multiplicity of virtues: their patience, their kindness, their energy, their genius for bringing on the reluctant and the handicapped, their organisational skills when it came to games and other after-school activities, their ways with computers; but of encouraging children to think, to argue, to see, to hear, to read, to value reason, to acquire discernment and the wherewithal to cultivate themselves, to get wisdom, by God, the thing it is all for, we heard not a peep.

The teachers I remember best taught on the grand assumption they had something to impart without which we would be the poorer. They swept into the classroom in their academic gowns and showed us the high, white star of Truth, and bade us gaze, and there aspire.

But those were grammar-school days, and grammar schools are elitist, and elitism is no more officially welcomed in teaching today than it is on The Big Breakfast. Books neither. I sat the whole hour waiting to see any species of education that entailed a book - not necessarily reading a book, even just throwing a book would have done - but no. Football, dressing up, computer screens by the yard, but a book...? So, what's a book when it's at home?

Mid-ceremony, a cherubic choir sang "I believe I can fly,/ I believe I can touch the sky". And there it was in a nutshell. Gone the idea that we intellectually empower children; all that matters is their self-esteem. Self-esteem based on knowledge, understanding, the acquisition of truths outside the self? Forget it. Self-esteem for self-esteem's sake. Psycho- self-esteem. So it's farewell, my pretty ones. You'll be flying all right, the way a balloon inflated with hot air flies, waywardly, to nowhere in particular.