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Aspel gives head surprise of her life

As Elizabeth Pescops accepted her teaching 'Oscar', a man with a red book was waiting to pounce... Michael Shaw reports.

JUST when retired headteacher Elizabeth Pescops felt the night could not get any better, she was approached by a familiar-looking person clutching a red book.

The former head of St Paul's RC primary school in Portsmouth had been busy accepting the prize for lifetime achievement from science broadcaster Lord Robert Winston.

So she did not notice Michael Aspel creeping on to the stage - until, that is, he interrupted her to say that he was whisking her off to a TV studio for her own This Is Your Life. "I'm dreaming this," the startled Mrs Pescops replied.

Mr Aspel's intervention was among the highlights of this year's Teaching Awards, which as ever brought surprises, tears and celebrity glamour.

Parents, pupils and colleagues nominated some 3,000 teachers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the fourth "Platos" ceremony, held this week at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

The 10 national winners each received prize packages of cash and computing equipment for their schools worth more than pound;25,000, while all 145 regional winners received prizes worth pound;3,000 and a laptop computer.

Among the celebrities who attended was Schindler's List star Liam Neeson, who presented headteacher Robert Jennings of Slemish College in Ballymena, County Antrim, with the Leadership Trust award for leadership in a secondary school.

The judges selected Dr Jennings for his attentive care to every pupil at the relatively new integrated school, which was set up by parents in 1997 after years of lobbying for a non-segregated secondary.

Dr Jennings said he was relieved to win because he had already spent the cash. "When I saw it was Liam Neeson presenting I thought it was a good sign because he's from Ballymena," the head added.

Several of the other teachers had been given their awards earlier in surprise visits at their schools, such as oustanding new teacher Kesner Ridge of Aylesford school in Warwick, who was visited by Eastenders actor Todd Carty during assembly. Other celebrities taking part in the awards included actor Art Malik, the former Brookside star and film actress Anna Friel, and the host Carol Smillie, who described it as "the BAFTAs with parents' evenings rather than paparazzi".

But the glitz could not completely lift the spirits of teachers from Bexhill high school in East Sussex. Penny Jones won the award for teaching assistant of the year, for her proactive work supporting pupils - many with autism and Down's syndrome - and for giving other teaching assistants in East Sussex help and pride in their jobs.

However, within the last fortnight one of Bexhill's pupils has been killed and another hospitalised by meningitis.

Headteacher Mike Conn, looking drained by the experience, said: "The range of emotions we have been through this week has been unbelievable."

Lord Puttnam, the award's founder, said he prayed teachers from Scotland would be able to take part next year. Scottish teaching unions have so far refused to give the awards unanimous backing.

Nominations for next year's award, which will include a new London region, can be made at from Sunday.

A full list of all the winners in Friday magazine. BBC1 will broadcast the awards on Sunday at 3.10pm

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