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Flickering successes

Julie Fleetwood and Pauline Edwards share the award for secondary teachers. Victoria Neumark sits in on one of Pauline Edwards' lessons.

Pauline Edwards joint winner of the secondary award, says she's drawn to pupils with problems. Perhaps because she was once the one everyone said was a failure, she is determined that her kids "won't feel like that". As she says, it's easy to make people think that they've failed; the great achievement is to help them succeed.

"I never had that feeling (of failure) off my parents but I had it off every teacher until the end," she says. Her chequered school career - she was expelled at 14 and did not re-enter the school system until a year later by which time "the damage was done" - was underpinned by the kind of sturdy individualism which has helped her understand the emotional needs of the children attending Phoenix Special School in London's East End, where she is head of science and a member of the senior management team.

She began her stint at Phoenix in 1994 by telling her pupils that they would do real science, that she would expect nothing less from them. In return, she promised that they could do practicals every lesson: a promise, she says, that has not been broken.

Pauline's busy life as head of science, trainee OFSTED inspector, teacher trainer, part-time MA student in educational management (special needs) and mother of two school-age daughters, seems a far cry from the sulky teenager who was only interested in swimming.

When Pauline was 15 - and after rejections from 12 schools - a headteacher agreed to take her on, dreadful file unread. "He said, 'If you give me any crap I'll give you a lot more.' And I started the next day." Although it was too late for hard work to produce exam results, Pauline left school enthusiastic to learn more. She began work as a nursery nurse before moving on to train and work as a theatre nurse. But the long hours became an obstacle when she was expecting her first child, so she began working as a lab technician at Channing Girls' School, an independent school in Highgate, north London.

"The school was wonderful. They gave me a day off paid each week to do a BTEC in science. I got very involved with the students, particularly the ones with problems. They seemed to seek me out."

She gave birth to her first daughter on the day she did the final practical for her BTEC: she gave birth to the second while she was doing the final exams for her degree in biochemistry at University College London.

Pauline's mother had just died and her husband had been in a serious car accident when she learned that her baby daughter had a critical heart condition. The need to be there for the child cut off any chance of pursuing her ambition to train clinically as a doctor. But by then, says Pauline, "I'd seen kids on one of my link classes and I thought it was time for a change in the way they were taught."

She went to Goldsmith's to do a PGCE, focusing on special needs. From there to her first teaching job at St Aloysius in Islington, north London, and the "foundation boys", the ones everyone thought were failures. She smiles as she remembers them. "They were, let's say, challenging. I had to sit and think, how am I going to make them do science when they don't want to be here?" She found solutions in limiting the amount of writing and giving them other strategies for remembering things.

"If we were doing kidneys, we went to a hospital and saw people in the kidney unit. It became real to them." They decorated the lab together. At the end of the GCSE course, an unprecedented third of the group of "total failures" passed with grades A-C.

At Phoenix, Pauline has written the science policy, co-ordinates the transition from primary to secondary science, liaises with parents "all the time", runs a science club, has introduced the COE (Welsh Board) in scientific achievement so that everyone can notch-up progress. "It's hard work and I love it."

Watching her move around the busy corridors, filling her science lab with her own brand of positive enthusiasm - "we're going to play with some experiments today," she says, "and you're going to find out how much you know" - you have to hope Pauline Edwards fulfils her ambition.

"I want to become a director of education," she says. "I want there to be someone at the top who empathises with children."

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