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The cherry-pickers

Neil Merrick finds out what the judges were faced with when choosing the winners

Val Hewson spent much of last year's spring bank holiday weekend wading through nomination papers spread out on her living room floor. Like other judges for the inaugural STAR Awards, she was staggered by the large number of entries (more than 1,600) received in 2004.

This meant more work than expected for the panel of seven judges, even though they enjoyed reading the glowing accounts of nominees made by students and colleagues. "It was fascinating to read the entries," says Ms Hewson, who is managing this year's awards from the Department for Education and Skills Standards Unit. "As human interest stories they came across really well. You got an excellent picture of their lives and how they helped their students and institutions."

The most revealing comments, she adds, were often the shortest and came from students: "They explained how a particular tutor had made a real difference to their lives."

Mike Allmond, chair of the private training company ReMIT, was impressed by the different roles performed by those nominated for awards, ranging from caretakers to teachers. "There were a lot of dedicated people who hadn't risen up the promotion ladder but were doing an outstanding job at the level they had reached and seemed perfectly happy with. This was recognised by their colleagues and the people they taught," he says.

The nominations, adds Mr Allmond, seemed to include a reasonable ethnic mix as well as people with disabilities, including a woman who was visually impaired. "There were several people with disabilities of some kind or another who had turned it to their best advantage, rather than seeing it as a hindrance."

To spread the workload, entries were divided among the judges to read. To ensure fairness, no judge was initially allowed to assess a nominee from the same part of the country as where they lived. The judges then met to check they were using the same criteria.

By last summer, entries had been reduced to a shortlist of 130. Dolly Naeem, assistant chief executive at the charity and learning provider Newtec, says she focused on the impact that a person made on learners, along with the scale of their individual contribution. "We were highly impressed by the quality. All of them were stars in their own right," she says. "How often do you have the chance to see the life-changing impact that individuals can have on learners?"

As chair of the judging panel, Judith Norrington read nearly all the nominations. "Some of the comments from students were really affecting," she says. "We would get a comment about how a student felt supported (by a teacher) with a strong hint that their previous school was not like that," she says. "They were given the confidence to learn as well as being taught practical skills."

Ms Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, particularly enjoyed the awards ceremony. "People were proud to be acknowledged. It was humbling to see their pride in being recognised," she says.

In spite of the fact that judges came from a wide variety of backgrounds, there were few divisions of opinion over which nominees should be shortlisted and, ultimately, be declared winners.

Last year's judges are reluctant to comment on individual entries or suggest they favoured any winner over another. But Ms Hewson recalls the moment when Ben Butler stepped up to receive his award as Offender Tutor of the Year. "Prisoners have such a difficult time and some have so many education and training needs,"she says.

Christine Lewis, national officer at Unison, was impressed by the number of people who had done exceptional things, such as taking over a course and transforming it in a short time. "Somebody said (of a nominee) that in whatever they did, their humanity shone through. There were a lot of people that had stuck at what they did for a long time and still managed to be an inspiration to others."

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