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Bright start

In its ascendency, will the STARs be enough of a contender to put further education in the same stellar setting as the 'teaching Oscars'? finds out

STARs started with a big bang. Cabinet heavyweights turned up at the first awards party last October and the rest of the learning and skills sector followed in the gravitational pull. Thirteen "unsung heroes" were rocketed into the limelight, including a prison tutor, a fitness trainer for mothers, and a consultant who has made his name championing women mechanics.

Now, after the dust has settled from the inaugural year, what's in the stars for the STARs? Where are they going and how fast?

Judith Norrington, who chaired the seven-strong judging panel and is outgoing director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges (AoC), says: "We had 1,600 nominations in the first year of the awards and that seems to me to be an outstanding result. It is a tribute to the many people across the sector who wanted to get involved.

"Now it is important to build on that this year. We want more people to be aware of the awards, particularly those who work in the sector in non-teaching roles. One of the really important things about STARs is that it is not just for teachers and tutors, but for the whole family of people who support the organisations. Directors, managers, receptionists, and so on are all eligible to be nominated because they can all make a huge difference to the learning process."

The overriding aim of the first year was to get the awards up and running, and attract nominations and sponsorship. Ms Norrington says the key to its initial success was clarity on what the awards were about, clear judging criteria and effective communication. This year the organisers want to increase the volume of nominations and, while not having a specific target, hope to receive at least 2,000 applicants.

In what is a crowded market - the AoC already has its Beacon awards for colleges - three new award categories have been introduced this year: Outstanding Team, Outstanding Contribution from a Volunteer, and Best Subject Learning Coach. Additionally, the outstanding achievement category has been split into two prizes - for Lifelong Achievement, and for Innovative Practice and Inspiration. While the Beacon awards are aimed at institutional achievement, the new team category is aimed at small groups of workers within an organisation.

Bob Powell, chief officer of Holex, a national network of local adult learning providers, and on the STARs steering group, warns the figure of 1,600 first-year nominations hides a disparity of participation between sectors. Around half the nominations were from colleges, with less than 5 per cent from adult learning providers.

"From the perspective of adult learning providers, I was slightly disappointed at the relatively low number of nominations last year," he says. "As the awards develop, we must make sure we get a range of representation from across the whole learning and skills sector. We're tackling that this year with a considerable increase in the amount of promotional literature particularly aimed at a regional level. We need to work more closely with various regional networks."

The work-based sector also struggled to rouse interest in the STAR Awards last year. "Participation in the awards was lower than I would have liked but not necessarily lower than what I would have expected," says Paul Warner, operations manager at the Association of Learning Providers.

"Work-based groups may be a bit cynical about new awards initially and would have been asking themselves 'what makes this one special?' But the first year has been successful and I get the feeling our members will take more notice this time round."

He is looking forward to the new categories and reckons there is scope for further growth "so long as they mean something in the sector".

As the awards mature, they are likely to broaden their scope from merely recognising excellence. Mr Powell believes they could take a leaf from the school sector's Teaching Awards which, apart from their role as the "teachers' Oscars", also aim to share good practice and highlight the benefits of a career in teaching.

He points to the invitation of Geraldine Wriglesworth, one of last year's winners, to join the expert advisory group of the Department for Education and Skills Standards Unit as an indication of how the STARs will introduce fresh blood at a policymaking level.

Also in line with his view, the new award for Best Subject Learning Coach is aimed at tutors who have brought best practice to the profession.

Looking further ahead, the organisers are exploring ways of letting the awards stand on their own feet, particularly since there is no guarantee a post-election DfES will extend the initiative beyond the initial three-year funding commitment.

Organisers are looking for either a lead sponsor willing to bankroll the scheme on a medium-term basis, or a number of sponsors willing to share the operating costs. The latter model could be similar to the AoC's Beacon awards, which runs on a charitable trust basis, as do the Teaching Awards.

Organisers are reluctant to mention names of the firms being approached but indicate they are looking for businesses with well-established links to the learning and skills sector.

As for whether the awards can act as a lure to draw people into the learning and skills sector, that is harder to foresee. "Because of the public profile of the learning and skills sector compared with the schools one, we are probably never going to attract the same level of attention or interest as the Teaching Awards," says Mr Powell.

"That is one reason why last year we didn't have national television coverage despite efforts. Until such a time that there may be a different public perception of the learning and skills sector as a whole, then we are unlikely to get national TV coverage. Without that there is going to be a natural limit to the extent the awards can go."

So there may be a limit to the STARs universe. Notwithstanding, they are still young and look likely to shine brighter in the years to come.

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