Give that teacher an Oscar!

Are teachers' awards inspiring or divisive, asks one of this year's judges
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The Independent Online

Journalists are meant to be a cynical breed, but I'd bet that I wasn't the only seasoned hack to shed a tear when Mary Campbell, national winner of this year's award for a special-needs teacher in a primary school, bowled across the stage in her wheelchair at Sunday's recording of Lord Puttnam's Teaching Awards 2000 at the Millennium Dome.

Journalists are meant to be a cynical breed, but I'd bet that I wasn't the only seasoned hack to shed a tear when Mary Campbell, national winner of this year's award for a special-needs teacher in a primary school, bowled across the stage in her wheelchair at Sunday's recording of Lord Puttnam's Teaching Awards 2000 at the Millennium Dome.

Mary was confined to a wheelchair after an operation two years ago, and could have taken early retirement. But, she told the audience, all that she had ever wanted to do since the age of 11 was to teach, and she had decided to battle on. Teachers who cope with children with learning difficulties day in, day out,fill me with awe, and Mary Campbell is surely one of the most remarkable.

The awards, two years old this autumn, have not had an easy birth. This year, the organisers had to work hard to drum up enough entrants from schools preoccupied with tests, teacher shortages and, in some cases, sheer survival. Large numbers of the profession, I suspect, regard them as a New Labour gimmick that brings competition and divisiveness into a profession devoted to the idea of teamwork. On the brink of performance-related pay, they are suspicious of any exercise that involves comparing teacher with teacher and underlines the obvious truth that the profession contains the outstanding, the good and the indifferent.

Critics - and independent schools have been particularly sniffy - point out that there are thousands of excellent teachers, and that it is invidious to single out a handful. How can judges, whizzing in and out of classrooms even more rapidly than an Ofsted inspector, possibly tell that Miss A rather than Mr B is the worthy winner?

As a national judge, I have to agree. We see only the four or five entrants who reach the final. They have already won regional prizes, and it is hard to compare the amazing humanities teacher in a country comprehensive with the amazing inner-city maths teacher. As Bob Finch, who chaired our panel, used to explain as we arrived at each school: "It's not rocket science."

But, then, not much is. Two years ago I had my doubts, but I have been converted to the idea that, despite its imperfections, the exercise is worthwhile. All the winners claim their awards in the name of their colleagues and the whole profession. It can't be bad that we have a national celebration of teaching when the profession's morale has been depressed by years of criticism from politicians and the media.

Though some may baulk at an Oscar-like ceremony more readily associated with film stars, it's precisely those associations that make it worthwhile. Lord Puttnam has pulled off his intention of showing us the star-like quality of people we meet every day, to remind us of the difference they make.

That's not just the teachers, but also parents and children featured in the film clips of the winning teachers at work. Parents talk about how their children have stopped hating school and learnt to read since their teacher came on the scene. Awkward teenagers say they used to think they were rubbish until their teacher persuaded them otherwise. You can dismiss it as sentimental claptrap - or shed a tear and wonder why Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar speech never made you feel that way.

The Teaching Awards 2000 will be shown on BBC2 this Sunday, 5 November, 4.20 to 5.10pm

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