What makes a good columnist? What does it take to get a prime slot in The TES opinion section or one of our magazines? And what chance has a young chalkface teacher of making their voice heard when people who are so much older and already in positions of power seem to make all the running?
These are questions that, as TES opinion editor, I am constantly being asked. As today The TES is launching a competition to find a new generation of writers who can articulate the hopes, fears, passions and commitment of young and aspiring teachers, I will start by attempting to answer the last question first.
Rarely a day goes by in my job without a phone call or email from or on behalf of someone with a policy to promote, a reputation to enhance, or a book or piece of research to puff. For the most part, I welcome these approaches. They are the raw material for our opinion pages, especially our opening slot, Platform (page 21). They help set the agenda, put forward new ideas, identify successes and highlight failure. They make the news and generate debate.
Inevitably, these contributions tend to come from older, more experienced hands, usually in positions of authority and influence. They are headteachers and quangocrats, leaders in the worlds of teaching, local government, higher education and (though not too frequently, I hope) central government. We need these voices. They are the people who have helped to shape the schools and colleges most of our readers teach in. But we need to hear from younger teachers, too. It is their ideas, freshness and energy that will shape the education world of the future.
Our TES New Columnists competition is the opportunity for those voices to make themselves heard. We are offering a cash prize of pound;500 for the best column, with pound;100 each for five runners-up. In addition, the winning column will be published and the writer will be given opportunities to write for The TES in the future, and be paid for their work.
To qualify, you must be a qualified teacher, or NQT, currently teaching in the UK. There is no age limit. You might be a classroom teacher or in a leadership role in your school. What we are seeking is a fresh approach, new ideas and good writing. The only other condition is you must not have had an article published in The TES on more than two occasions. If you have, you don't need our help. We know you already.
Those are the basic rules. Now for some tips which, I hope, will answer my other opening questions.
* Choose your slot. One of the biggest failings of many would-be columnists is that they have no clear idea how and where the pieces they write would fit into a newspaper's structure. The TES is no exception. If your untargeted thoughts pour out as Bridget Jones-style musings, you will not (unless you happen to be Helen Fielding) get published.
Every week we have a variety of columns carrying the opinions and personal views of teachers: Give us a Break on this page (see right) and Talkback in Friday magazine are examples. We also have our established columnists who write from their own experience as teachers: Gemma Warren and Mike Kent in Friday, and Stephen Jones in FE Focus's Backchat slot. Look at these columns. What style do they adopt? Are they funny, satirical (like Ted Wragg on the back page), or do they put forward an argument and try to shape the agenda, like Platform. Having selected the column you would like to write, check out the word length and stick to it. No column is more than 750 words.
* Play to your strengths. What sort of person are you? Are you a bubbly extrovert, bursting with views and anecdotes culled from your daily classroom experience? You could be a Friday columnist. Do you like to make your colleagues laugh? Try Give us a Break. Do you have views about what is happening in education and want something done about it? Or do you fancy yourself as a budding Bethan Marshall? (see above). Try and develop a "voice" which suits you best. Then pick your slot.
* Be clear about your topic. Decide what you are going to write about and stick to that. Don't get side-tracked and keep your theme, argument or narrative simple.
* And finally, consider your readers. Who are they and how do you reach out to them? Are they school leaders or class teachers? Are they ministers and civil servants? Do you want to persuade them, elicit sympathy, enrage, challenge, or entertain them? But whoever your immediate target is, always remember, when writing for The TES, most of your readers will be teachers, just like you.
If you would like to enter our competition, email your contributions to email@example.com. Mark your entries, TES New Columnists and state your name, address, daytime telephone number, school or college and the length of time you have been in teaching. Deadline for entries is April 26. The winners will be announced in May.