National prize for classroom performance
Lynda Ratcliff's teaching "Oscar" - for classroom performance and managerial skills in special needs teaching in the first-ever National Teaching Awards - came after almost 20 years in a job she never expected to do.

"I didn't start out with the intention of being a teacher at all," she says.

"I went to Art School and wanted to study fine art and my interest in teaching was only sparked when I had Leon [her eldest son] and became interested in child care. I got involved in pre-school play groups, mother and toddler groups, and local play schemes during the holidays and it really evolved from that."

Her interest in education having been sparked, Lynda did a teaching certificate at her local college and went into teaching full time. Soon after she had her second son, Jonathan, and it was while she was at home looking after him that her love affair with the OU started.

"It is absolutely tremendous. The materials are superb, the tutors are excellent and it's very stimulating. It challenges your mind and helps you develop so many skills you put to use in other areas of your life - organisational skills and time management skills in particular," she says.

After graduating with a BA, Lynda became interested in special needs education and after returning to work she studied for the OU Advanced Diploma in Special Needs.

She then decided to study for an MA, going part-time at work in order to do justice to both her job and her studying. She focussed on language, literacy and learning difficulties, and on returning to work full-time three years later took on the role as special needs co-ordinator at Parkfield Junior Infants School in Birmingham. She also became the Key Stage 1 co- ordinator at the school.

Lynda spends one day a week on administration and four days in the classroom teaching some of the 139 children at the school registered as having special needs.

"The majority of the children are learning English as an additional language and while this positively enhances their education some do need extra support to help them fully participate in classes," she says.

After her BA, MA, and advanced diploma from the OU, Lynda is about to embark on an EdD, and is currently taking Educational Research In Action, in preparation for it, and is planning a pilot project into the implications of the literacy hour for children with special needs who speak English as a second language.

But, after a five year gap, how does she feel about returning to study?

"I've missed it, actually," she says. "The role I took on at work was a big promotion with managerial responsibility, so for the first couple of years I was really getting to grips with that.

"One of the main things about OU courses is that they are up to date so for the first two to three years I didn't feel I was missing out because I'd learned so much. After that I needed to update my knowledge of current teaching theory and reflect on effective practice and that's what the OU allows you to do, so I'm looking forward to the new ideas and new challenges the OU has in store for me."

Lynda's award includes pounds 4,500 for her school and a certificate and engraved trophy for herself.

" I was a bit shocked to be honest but I felt very flattered even to be nominated. I think the awards are a great way to celebrate teaching because, for so long, it's been an under-rated profession," she says.