The TES Teaching Awards 2014
Last week I wrote about education being like politics – showbiz for ugly people. Today, the TES Awards, which is more like showbiz for very tired people with marker pen ink on the side of their hands. I suspect quite a few people there had marked a book in the last 24 hours, and that's a damn good thing.
I go to a lot of events inside the snow globe of education, and I'm frequently struck by how much it can feel like walking through the back of the enchanted wardrobe. It can also feel a bit disconnected from the odour of sweets and flatulence that characterises the lived school experience. What I like about these awards is that you can, among the brokers and the thought-leaders, discern the scent of the classroom. There are more English teachers and TAs than rentagobs here, and it's refreshing. I love writing about teaching, but unless you find a way of keeping it real (and for me it's by being a teacher), it's easy to become a satellite to what's important – namely, children in a classroom, looking at you and waiting to learn, or to be convinced to do so.
Amongst the edu-rat pack were the gods and monsters of these affairs. At my table, Vic Goddard, the patron saint of inspirational teachers sat, as lines of weeping women lined up to touch his hem, and they were healed. We talked about the next series of Educating... (Walthamstow) and the one after that (I am sworn to silence). Also at my table, the legendary Fred Jarvis, ex-general secretary of the NUT, who reminded me to read his book, out later this week, and it would be churlish not to. It's not often I'm thrilled to meet someone inside the snow globe, but I made an exception for the awesome Meryl, the best thing to come out of Tough Young Teachers, for her honest and-genuinely-inspiring everywoman story of how a new teacher can, if she endures the gauntlet of the first year, grow legs, and then wings. I think she'll make an astonishing teacher, and I selfied the hell out of her.
At one point I even got Goddard and camera-shy Oliver Beach into the same picture, although I was fearful that if Educating Essex and Tough Young Teachers were to appear on the same spot, a rip would be torn in the fabric of telly space/time.
On one side of me, David James of Wellington College (a little known inner-city school for the underprivileged); on the other, the fantastic Beatrix Simpson, winner of last year's Headteacher of the Year, and I can see why, like Vic, she burned with ambition and optimism. Although she didn't pull off the double this year, I can see why her school probably feels like a winner anyway.
Hugh Dennis compered competently – a safe pair of comedy hands rather than an inspired one – and he dutifully delivered a set of flattery and chuckles more than belly laughs. And one by one, he called up the nominees of each category with perfect diligence, who did their best corridor walks to the stage. As the session progressed, it became possible to see where wine had been taken and where it had not, especially as one winner was asked by Dennis how he would be celebrating, and you could see the strain of Sisyphus as he tried to keep his **** together for thirty more seconds. Fair play to him.
Highlight of the event? For me, it came early, as the daughter of murdered teacher Ann Maguire came up to accept a lifetime achievement award on her mother's behalf. It was powerful medicine and for a second amongst the congratulations and bonhomie, there was a quiet spot of reflection and the sharp contrast of the sharper end of the job. Memorable.
Nobody is claiming that this represents an empirical hierarchy of the absolute, objective best in the UK, as if such a thing were possible. In fact, while each category undoubtedly featured gold medals and bag of silvers for everyone else, this wasn't a competition, because that would imply losers. This wasn't binary. Just to get here was a victory, in a profession where victories are often thin on the classroom floor. Children do not routinely jump onto desks and bark Robert Frost at you; they do not line up and stubbornly declare themselves to be Spartacus. Rarely will you receive a hand written note from the CEO of an international charity saying "you saved my life". Despite the routine hagiographies of Hollywood, our jobs are 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent administration. Anyone seeking glory should join the Foreign Legion.
We are patient, teachers. We play a game so long we often forget we're playing it; the ball has been pop-eyed so high from the diamond that we often lose sight of it. Like the Vatican, our plans are measured in generations. We play a game of speed chess on a high wire where each heart beat demands a new move and the game lasts seven years. This is guts, not glory.
So bring on some of the glory. Why not celebrate some of the people, institutions and ambitions of a few, as representatives of us all? This isn't a democracy, it's the Academy Awards. If you disparage them for being selective then you've missed the point. I wish a million teachers could have been here. But it's a damn good start.