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Plato on board

Teaching has its own rewards, but what's it like to win a Plato? This Sunday 10 national winners of the Teaching Awards 2005 will discover what it's like to be named the best in the profession and for their schools to be in the spotlight. So what are the lasting effects of the televised ceremony and is it a life changing experience? Michael Duffy finds out

The Teaching Awards are seven years old now, and firmly established in the educational calendar. Since the beginning, 68 teachers and classroom assistants have been identified nationally as outstanding representatives of their profession; by the close of this Sunday's 2005 gala presentation of gold Plato awards at London's Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, 10 more will have joined them, blinking in the unaccustomed spotlight of celebrity and acclaim.

Teachers aren't used to acclaim, and they are certainly not used to celebrity. Almost to a man, they tell you that the awards reflect the ethos of their school and the contribution of their colleagues and not what they have done themselves. But they do concede that the moment of celebrity is (in the words of several of them) "just fantastic". For a few, indeed, it's a life changing experience.

Take Philip Beadle. In 2004, when he won the secondary teacher of the year award, he was teaching English at Eastlea community school technology college in the London borough of Newham. Not any more. Though he is still teaching part time at Crofton school in Lewisham, it is increasingly the media that is shaping his future. He is writing professionally with a monthly column for the Guardian, and broadcasts on radio and educational TV. His performance as the teacher tasked with teaching The Unteachables in Channel 4's unmissable four-part current series has seen staffrooms across the nation divided between admiration for his confidence and disapproval of his methods. The jury is still out on that. Whatever the verdict, Mr Beadle's new career has had a dramatic start.

By contrast, Paul Keogh - secondary teacher of the year, 2003 - sees the title as a reinforcement, almost a vindication, of his commitment to classroom teaching. The award itself was, he says, an unforgettable experience. "The phone never stopped ringing. There were letters and e-mails from former pupils all over the world."

He was asked to speak at conferences and training days, on radio and television. He declined to appear on the sofa with Richard and Judy. "They wanted me to comment on a news story about a pupil stabbing. I told them I'd happily talk about the superb things that go on in schools every day, but not about a totally untypical thing like that."

So Mr Keogh, now with an MBE, is still head of modern languages at King James's comprehensive school in Knaresborough, where he's taught for 17 years. His hero is still the teacher in Kes - "the one who's played by Colin Welland in the film. I tell everybody that he was really the first of the Advanced Skills Teachers." Unsurprisingly, he still thinks that teaching is the best possible career. "Except for being a Blue Peter presenter, and I think that that has probably passed me by, there is no job in the world I would rather do." As for the award itself, "It's an award for the school, a great way of celebrating the work of staff and pupils."

That is very much what music teacher Kathy Roberts says of becoming secondary teacher of the year in 2000. She was then at St Aidan's comprehensive in Harrogate, a high-performing school. Music results were excellent: so was the level of musical involvement. Four of her groups were in national music competition finals that year, two of them won; her choir sang at the Schools Prom in the Albert Hall. She was at the top of her profession.

For her, though, the Plato was a personal challenge. She, too, had been at her school for 17 years. She wanted a fresh start in a school with the same inclusive ethos and the same potential and, three years ago, at Brigshaw school in the former mining town of Castleford, she found it. There, she is the co-ordinator of creative arts: in a new post in a different context and a different school, she is helping colleagues re-create those earlier achievements.

For younger teachers especially, the awards are career-enhancing. Kesner Ridge, nominated as an outstanding new teacher in 2002, was in her first post, teaching English and drama at Aylesford school in Warwick. That year she moved to her present post at Hagley RC high school in Worcestershire, where she rapidly qualified as an AST. Then, working with an inspirational lead adviser, to her delight she became a member of the county's "Leading Learning" partnership.

Her old school was as pleased about the award as her new one, not just because of the media interest (though that, according to deputy head Steve Hatcher, was certainly a bonus) but also because they saw what a boost it was to her. She says the same. "It made me feel so much more secure in my career, a sort of confirmation that in the end it is classroom teaching that matters."

But what of the older teachers? Bob Jennings was already 50 in 1999 when, in the first year of the awards, he was named teacher of the year for working with parents and the community, and was subsequently awarded the OBE. He had been at St George community school in inner-city Bristol for 22 years, pioneering new approaches to family learning, after-school activities and extended hours. The award, he says, was "like a tap on the shoulder - the realisation that I had the opportunity now to help other schools change their culture and unlock the resources that come when you involve a whole community in its children's learning." He took the plunge, retired to set up his own consultancy, and has been busy ever since, driving thousands of miles a year and working "like a sort of missionary"

with individual schools, LEAs, the Specialist Schools Trust, and the DfES.

"I'm doing just what I did before, but on a far wider scale."

Perhaps it's not the scale that matters. Like Bob Jennings, Maureen Davies CBE was one of that first cohort of winners (1999) - in her case, for lifetime achievement. She was about to retire from the headship of St Sebastian's RC primary school in Liverpool: after 35 years, it seemed to crown her career. But she and her colleagues had set their hearts on creating an early years centre of excellence for their neighbourhood, and the pound;23,500 prize money was put towards that. In the meantime, Ms Davies kept on working, now with partner schools as an early years consultant. Last year her dream was realised, and Lord Puttnam, chair of the Teaching Awards Trust, came to Liverpool to open the new nursery that she had done so much to create. Its title? "A Field of Dreams." That was the high point, says Ms Davies; it was the Teaching Awards that made it possible.

So the awards bring opportunities, too. Claire Davidson, who won last year's Plato for school and community involvement, says that its how you use the opportunities that counts. At the Ridgeway school in Plymouth she had built up a network of international partners; thanks to the award, she has extended this to include her local primary school and is now finalising a joint primary and secondary visit to partner schools in Africa, to foster a deeper and mutual cultural understanding.

One group of education workers has certainly seen their status rise. Since 2000, there has been a specific award for teaching assistants, the under-rewarded stalwarts of so many primary classrooms. Except perhaps in financial terms, that has certainly made a difference. It has opened the route, for instance, to higher level training for them - something that Josie Adlard, winner in 2002 from St Martin's infants school in Salisbury, has been quick to take advantage of. So has Judith Howes, who works at Hardwick primary school in Stockton, who won the same award the following year.

"My school is a lovely school," she says, "but it's not an affluent area.

The local newspaper and TV were brilliant, and it has an amazing effect on the parents as well as on the children. It lifted everybody. You could see them thinking, 'Look how good we are!' And it had the same effect on me. I started a degree in educational studies - I'm in my final year - and I'm part of the national pilot for higher level training. I've written about teaching assistants for The TES. I've been to the Palace and met the Queen.

More than ever, I love my job."

Her story is a reminder that it's the effect of the awards on schools, teachers and children that matters. In the short term, the awards mean prizes: substantial cash sums to the winners' schools, and generous grants of teaching equipment and ICT. Schools and winners work together to get best value from them. Judith Howes's school funded a programme of class visits and curriculum enrichment; Josie Adlard's created a new play trail.

Kathy Roberts funded a music technology laboratory at St Aidan's. At Aylesford school in Warwick they set up an arts and theatre reference library, and called it the Kesner Ridge collection. All the winners have similar stories to tell.

Harder to quantify but arguably more important is what Janet Bourne, who won the 2002 award for special needs teachers, calls "the ripple-down effect" - the impact, not just on the winners themselves and the pupils they taught, but indirectly on people's understanding of teaching as a whole.

Ms Bourne was the outreach teacher for primary years at the Lea Valley pupil referral centre at Waltham Cross. Now she's deputy head of the centre. Like the other winners, she enjoyed her share of celebrity: a Pride of Britain Award followed by a star-studded party at the Park Lane Hilton where she met Sir Paul McCartney, an evening with Richard and Judy, and (at her pupils' suggestion) a makeover on ITV's This Morning. "All great fun,"

she says, "but in the long run, not important.

"What mattered most about our award (her term) is that it raised the profile of the job we are doing. It created an understanding of the efforts we make to keep children in school; getting them back in line, helping them to achieve, to regain confidence. So many children nowadays seem to be confronted with failure. Our message is that you have to walk with them; that you never, never give up. I'm convinced that now, far more people share that conviction with us.

"The children were thrilled beyond measure. For them it was like opening the door to an almost magical world, and they were part of it. We all shared it, and we were all lifted by it. That's what the awards have meant for me."

Paul Keogh says something similar. Apart from a new set of staff soccer shirts ("We get our priorities right!" he jokes) they haven't spent the Knaresborough money yet. It's earning interest while a community language project is in the planning. But compared with what happened at last year's senior prizegiving evening, he tells you, even that special project is unimportant. To his surprise, the Plato was presented to him again, and everybody in the hall, from governors to students, stood spontaneously to applaud him.

"You can't put a value on that," he says. "Of all the things that the award brought with it, that was the most unexpected and the most moving. It was as though the school was applauding itself. It was an amazingly inclusive moment."

The Teaching Awards 2005 national ceremony takes place at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on Sunday October 16 and will be broadcast on BBC Two at 7pm the same day

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