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How to get ahead in the honours stakes

David Walker explains how to get nominated for a gong while, below, we name this New Year's crop

Teachers, canteen supervisors and school cleaners who want to take the Government up on its offer to give education greater recognition in the honours game should write to the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, London SW1 - but hurry - nominations for the next big list, the Queen's Birthday Honours in June, are nearly closed.

The civil service unit which deals with honours says it is glad to receive recommendations from the public and does not object if people nominate themselves - but it applies strict rules of precedence in deciding who gets what.

Cleaning ladies are never likely to rise above MBE while knight- and damehoods are reserved for the officer corps - in education that means long-service school heads, HM inspectors and chief education officers, and then only provided informal enquiries do not disclose skeletons in their closets (such as past political extremism or a messy divorce, unless it was a very long time ago).

Three years ago John Major, the Conservative prime minister, declared that awards were going to be based more on merit rather than political affiliation and background. Since then the Cabinet Office unit has sought public nominations - which now form about 40 per cent of awards, mainly at the lower MBE and OBE end of the scale. Whitehall still tends to use the vast network of government contacts, local authorities, police and the magistracy to check out names. It is no coincidence that junior civil servants with long service records are most likely to end up with an honour.

Much fuss was made last week when two heads, Tamsyn Imison of Hampstead Comprehensive and Geoffrey Hampton of Northicote School in Wolverhampton were honoured with a damehood and knighthood. In fact, their names could easily have been nearing the top of the official lists as a matter of course. The Cabinet Office unit maintains a vast data base, including thousands from education, which is periodically updated.

As Tony Blair has gone on record promising more awards for teachers, the unit will adjust its ratios. How names are chosen and what proportion are awarded to which professional group remains a closely-guarded secret, worked out between the Cabinet and Prime Minister's offices.

A quick guide to honours:

* Bluebloods and former prime ministers can look forward to the Garter or, if Scots, the Thistle, two orders of chivalry in the personal gift of the Queen. The Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III, includes old aristocrats and three of the surviving former prime ministers - Callaghan, Heath and Thatcher.

* The Order of Merit is also in the personal gift of the Sovereign - nominees do not have to be processed through Downing Street. Founded by Edward VII in 1902, OMs have rendered "exceptional service" or are distinguished in the arts and sciences.

* The Companionship of Honour was founded in 1917 as a way of expanding the supply of gongs during the First World War by Prime Minister David Lloyd George who saw the honours system as an extension of politics. The ranks today include those distinguished in the arts and sciences as well as political eminences such as Lords Tebbit and Owen.

* Diplomats and Foreign Office staff have their own gong, the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.

* Former politicians can aspire to a peerage, knight bachelor or dame. These are entirely political choices.

* Among the other orders of chivalry the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, created by George III, serves nowadays as a pay-off for senior civil servants and military officers.

* Ordinary people can qualify for the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, also created by Lloyd George in 1917. This can take the form of knighthoods (Knight Commander or Grand Cross). Lesser mortals may become a Commander (CBE) or an Officer (OBE). The lowest rank is Member (MBE).

Leader, page 18

Praise and Prejudice, Friday magazine, pages 45

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