BBC tells teachers: give us celebrity

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Indy Politics

The BBC has been accused of threatening to pull the plug on tonight's awards ceremony for the best and most innovative teachers in Britain unless the organisers sugared the pill with a host of celebrities.

Lord Puttnam, the chairman of the General Teaching Council, has written to Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis explaining that politicians are banned from the televised Teaching Awards ceremony in favour of TV personalities.

"In order to secure a prime time slot of BBC 1, we've had to concede that they will all be presented by what the BBC term 'celebrities' and that there will be no direct political involvement in the ceremony," writes Lord Putt-nam, the film producer who set up the awards scheme three years ago.

"I'm sure you'll agree this is a small price to pay in order to allow the contribution of all of these outstanding teachers to be seen by the widest possible television audience."

As a result, there will be no scientists, artists, writers or education ministers handing out the awards, known as Platos. Instead, viewers will see teachers receiving their prizes from 10 personalities including actresses Sue Johnston and Joanna Lumley, and footballer Sol Campbell. Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, will attend the event at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but even she has been barred from the podium.

Mr Willis, Lib Dem spokesman for education, and a former teacher, is furious at the decision to exclude the main education spokespeople in Parliament, who have been allowed to hand out prizes in the previous two years.

"I'm a great supporter of the awards but I find it shabby, really, that the public broadcasting system should do this. Here we are, presenting a huge celebration of success in schools on behalf of thousands of teachers. Quite frankly, we all need to be involved in that," he said.

In response, however, Lord Puttnam took personal responsibility for the decision to use an all-star cast of presenters, despite his letter to Mr Willis. He said that the BBC and the Teaching Awards Trust are in agreement that the awards must be seen as politically neutral.

"What I want to do is make absolutely sure that the teaching awards are fireproof in the event of a change of government," he said. "Teaching is certainly bigger than politicians. It can't be reduced to the whims and caprices of individual politicians."

A spokesman for the BBC said: "Having well-known and respected personalities who all wish to say something about the important contribution of teachers will make the Platos a very special occasion." The show, presented by Carol Smillie, goes out next Sunday.

Mr Willis, MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, is boycotting theceremony, as is his daughter Rachel Willis, who plays Connie, the TV face of internet service provider AOL.