Ekie Lansdowne-Bridge was the only black pupil at her school in Berkshire 30 years ago. She remembers wryly the advice the careers service gave her: why not become a nurse like Mummy? Her teachers were rather wiser. "You'd make a wonderful teacher of PE," they told her.
That's what happened. Her first post was at Langdon school in East Ham: large, multi-ethnic and challenging. But for one afternoon a week she taught in a local special school, and that was to decide her future. After completing an MEd in special education, she taught PE at Lord Mayor Treloar College for children with profound physical disabilities in Hampshire. "The philosophy was simple. Everybody was entitled to learning; everybody, regardless of disability, was entitled to enjoy sport. It's something I never forgot."
She became deputy and then acting head at Grafham Grange in Guildford, Surrey, at that time a residential school for boys with severe emotional and behavioural disabilities. Then, in 1998, she was appointed head of the Reading Alternative School, a maintained day school for children with EBD, locally known as "a school for young thugs". She was determined to change that reputation.
"The focus was teaching: mainstream curriculum, mainstream qualifications.
The children needed to know that they weren't abandoned." It meant a change of attitude and a change of approach: school uniform, a school council, a fortnightly forum (attended by all the children and all the staff) to discuss rewards and sanctions.
But it meant lots of enjoyment, too: theatre trips, camping and canoeing expeditions in France and Spain, and points (convertible into shopping vouchers) for good work and behaviour. The effect has been striking. Some children have gone back to mainstream education; others have achieved good GCSEs and moved on to college to take NVQs. There is even an annual reunion for former pupils.
Ekie, who was nominated by parents, is proud that special education has been recognised in the awards. She has only one ambition left: an all-conquering season for the school football team she coaches.
The final of the Teaching Awards will be held in London on October 24 and will be broadcast the same day. Nominations for next year's awards are open at www.teachingawards.com