Teaching 'Oscar' for man who spent 50 years mastering his art

The first thing you notice about Jeff Stratton is his odd shoes – and their bright-yellow laces.

The reason the 71-year-old art and drama teacher wears them is simple. "It's a conversation opener that gets the pupils talking," he says. The second thing you notice is his enthusiasm, despite half a century in the profession.

He insists that his pupils should have the best resources available to them. So, at a time when all schools are dealing with the public spending squeeze, Jeff – who also works as a community artist – ploughs any money he earns from commissions back into his arts budget.

Last night he was rewarded for all his efforts by winning a coveted lifetime achievement award at the annual Teaching Awards ceremony – the profession's "Oscars" – which was staged at London's Palace Theatre.

He says he has no plans to retire from his job at Lipson Community College in Plymouth. "If I become doolally and completely gaga, I'm sure somebody will say something like 'Jeff, you're past it now'," he said.

No one is likely to say that at the moment, though. His headteacher, Steve Baker, who admits that there were risks in taking him on, is full of praise for the work Jeff has done at the school – particularly with disadvantaged youngsters on the verge of exclusion.

"He has challenged youngsters who were emotionally disturbed," he said. "They are doing high-quality art work and have become engaged with education again."

He has given him the title "Master of Imagination" – a quality many perceive to have been lacking from education in recent years as the priority has shifted towards filling in tick-boxes and reaching targets.

"If you're good at working without patronising the children, it's amazing just through kindness and patience what you can achieve."

Jeff's story began in a primary school in Kent five decades ago. Since then, he has been deputy head of a school on board a sailing ship for – among others – troubled youngsters, the headteacher of a secondary-modern school and a county education adviser. He has worked at Lipson for the past 16 years.

He left his initial primary school after the 1966 Aberfan disaster – in which more than 100 children in South Wales were killed when a coal tip slid on to their school – made him realise that he could not afford to get too close to his pupils. It is an episode that still distresses him.

On becoming head of a secondary modern school in Plymouth, he gained the distinction of being one of the first heads in the country to abolish corporal punishment – despite the misgivings of his staff. The school's results and attendance record improved.

In his spare time, he flies his own aeroplane around Cornwall and Devon after obtaining a pilot's licence at the age of 60.

Doolally? Not yet. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Awards: Star teachers

Outstanding new teacher: Rachael Keeble, Seven Banks primary school, Lydney, Gloucestershire

Headteacher: Patricia Davies, Chingford Hall primary school, Waltham Forest

Teacher: Christine Emmett, St Elizabeth's primary school, Hamilton, Scotland

Special Needs teacher: Simon Roberts, Selworthy School, Taunton

History teacher: Richard Rodd, Tendring Technology College, Frinton on Sea, Essex.

Science teacher: Nicki Bovey, Saltash.net Community School, Saltash, Cornwall

Teaching assistant: Mandy Theobald, Spring Meadow primary school, Harwich, Essex