Don't scorn the teaching `Oscars'

Judith Judd was sceptical of the National Teaching Awards when first asked to be a judge, but she is a convert now
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The Independent Online
"IMPOSSIBLE!" SAID some critics. "How on earth can you pick the best teachers in the country after a few brief visits?" "Divisive!" said others. "Most of the teachers in our school are good. We wouldn't dream of entering just one for an award."

I, too, was sceptical when I was first asked to be a judge in the Lloyds TSB National Teaching Awards. A year later and - after the screening on Sunday of the Oscar-style award ceremony - I am now a convert.

I don't deny the difficulties in singling out individuals, nor that teaching is, in part, a team effort. Equally, the idea that the teachers who were rewarded on Sunday are unmatched is clearly an illusion: the vast majority of the country's 24,500 schools failed to enter a single teacher. Private schools were the most dismissive of all.

However, the effect of staging the sort of televised jamboree - normally reserved for actors or pop stars - to recognise the work of teachers, can do nothing but good.

Here were people who toil away out of the public eye featured on prime- time television because of their extraordinary skill in a profession which holds the key to children's futures. Lord Puttnam, who ran the awards, was surely right to argue that such public recognition will raise the status and morale of teachers - who have been under fire from politicians and the media for more than 20 years.

As for team work, every award winner on Sunday acknowledged a debt to colleagues and head teachers: a resounding acknowledgement that education is a collaborative effort.

However, team work has its limits.

Any parent will tell you how a child's education is set back by a year with Mrs X who can't keep order or who sends her class to sleep. The parents interviewed on the film clips had no doubt that individual teachers do make a difference. Mothers of autistic children taught by Mary Pittnam in a Plymouth special school described how their lives had been transformed by one remarkable individual.

If anything, the proceedings underlined the fact that these were just a handful among many outstanding teachers. Several of the winners were at pains to emphasise that there are plenty of teachers of similar calibre out there. "I'm nothing special," one said.

I visited two of the teachers in the Best New Teacher in a Primary School category, both of whom were regional winners. Neither of them was the eventual national winner, but they were amazing to watch.

The BBC's brief films of the award winners were delightful, yet it was impossible to convey in such a short space of time the performance of the best teachers. There were snapshots of teachers footballing, teachers cricketing, teachers computing but nothing that quite captured the sense that teaching done well is as impressive as a Ryan Giggs goal or an Anthony Hopkins monologue.

Neither of the teachers I saw were in leafy suburban schools. Both were teaching several children who were difficult to control and struggling to learn but their classes proceeded in perfect order. One silenced her reception class with a quiet "5,4,3,2,1". The other explained the concept of alliteration to eight and nine-year-olds. Even when she had moved on to another topic they were putting up their hands enthusiastically with more examples.

These were new teachers who had been in the job for less than two years - and their colleagues were delighted by their success.

I hope that teachers who have scorned the awards this year will come to see them not as divisive, but as a celebration of the whole profession.