On a hot July night, Paddy Beels stood on a podium in London, glamorous in turquoise satin, taking possession of a small trophy, the Plato she had won for working with parents and the community. Today, though, the headteacher of Wingate Nursery School, County Durham, is in trousers and sandals, with dirt under her nails.
She's been digging potatoes with the children in the nursery's vegetable garden, where this year they have grown courgettes, carrots, strawberries and herbs. Four-year-old Lewis calls out to her with delight that he is a dog, and goes down on his hands and knees outside the "kennel" to start lapping water from a saucer.
Paddy Beels, 54, came back from the National Teaching Awards ceremony to a rapturous reception from the ex-mining community of Wingate. Met at Durham station in a gold Rolls-Royce belonging to one of the dads, she arrived in the village to find the narrow streets festooned with banners and balloons, a huge buffet laid on by parents at the nursery and Simply The Best booming over a PA system. "Everyone was on a high. We'd all been brought together by what she'd achieved," says 32-year-old Denise Kell, whose three children have all attended the nursery. "We were thanking our lucky stars that Paddy Beels came to Wingate."
Things have quietened down since then. On a Thursday morning in September the Plato isn't immediately visible among the book bags, plants, dolls, easels and guinea pig cages in the nursery. But the architect is calling by this afternoon to discuss the possibility of building a mezzanine floor. They want more space for the children here - empty, open "white space" where children can make free with their imaginations - and the pound;20,000 prize money (plus pound;3,500 from the regional finals) will make it possible.
The reasons why Paddy Beels won the award are obvious, even if the trophy itself is not. Her commitment shines out, along with the warmth and encouragement she shows to all comers. It's not often that you go into a school and the word love springs to mind, but it does here. Even OFSTED inspectors noticed it, commending the "love, care and respect" with which staff treat children. As Denise Kell says, in a quote which the National Teaching Award organisers could not have improved on: "She's been a winner for the past 10 years."
For a community like this, which has had little to celebrate, the recognition that something of excellence was going on in their midst was particularly meaningful. But all the NTA winners found their school communities boosted by the recognition. "Lots of people had a really big buzz from it," says maths teacher Romilda Scannelli of Uplands Community College in East Sussex, who won the secondary teacher of the year award. "And to achieve that buzz right at the end of the school year was amazing. Now the whole school is being consulted about how they'd like to spend the money."
Next week, the Teaching Awards Trust will again be sending nomination packs out to schools. A few changes have been made, including the creation of a classroom assistant of the year award, with accompanying prize money. In the first year, not all the teaching unions could stomach that, but this year "people are braver", says a trust spokeswoman. The awards, which covered only England in their first year, have been extended to Wales and Northern Ireland for 2000, with Scotland planned for inclusion in 2001. The word "best" has been quietly dropped and replaced by "outstanding" - as in outstanding new primary teacher - in a bid to head off charges that the awards are divisive.
This summer's television ratings were disappointing for a prime slot on BBC1, although 1.7 million viewers doesn't sound so bad. But the weather was exceptionally hot, and the BBC, recognising that this is classic public service broadcasting, has again promised a prime-time slot for the awards ceremony. The organisers and the main sponsor, Lloyds TSB, are aiming for at least 2,000 nominations by the December 6 deadline.
Each school can put forward up to four people. While some teachers undoubtedly still have reservations about the whole idea of "teacher Oscars", this year's winners are unanimous in having found the experience positive for their schools. "Everybody should go for it," says David Waugh, winner of best new teacher in a secondary school. "You can't argue with the money and the school gets an awful lot of status. Any head worth his or her salt will put people in for it."
Keith Parry of Hyde Technology School, Tameside, Greater Manchester, who won an award for most creative use of ICT in a secondary, has been able to strike advantageous deals with suppliers who want to use the school in their advertising. Computer services company RM has provided a coveted interactive whiteboard and projector on indefinite loan and Hyde has secured 200 recycled computers under the Tools for Schools scheme in a classic case of success breeding success. He says: "Students were so proud of the school being singled out in this way.We'd always talked to them about the school being special, and here was the proof."
Jean Heslop, who won the award for contribution to school leadership in a primary school, is back at Cliffe Hill School, Halifax, where she has worked for 19 years. The first thing the school did with the prize money was give pound;500 to a local charity, the Calderdale Community Foundation, "as a lesson to the children about sharing good fortune".
In budget deficit since the introduction of local management of schools, Cliffe Hill plans to invest in ICT equipment which it could never otherwise afford. Jean Heslop also hopes to capitalise on the award's status to double the prize money with private sponsorship and get some decent facilities for the marginalised community her school serves.
But her school has got more than cash out of her Plato. "Twelve months ago I would have said we only entered for the money," she says. "But it's been a celebration for the school and for Calderdale. I would just tell teachers, 'Get out there and have a go. Sing the praises of your profession. Teachers make a difference and a good teacher makes a hell of a difference.' I still love every day of my job and I'm 58, so that's not bad."
Some of the winners - such as Maureen Davies (for lifetime achievement) - have the end of their careers in sight. Others are just starting on what may prove rocket-propelled trajectories.
Twenty-four-year-old David Waugh won the award while at Beauchamp College, Leicester, but this autumn transferred to the 1,200-pupil Northampton School for Boys, a foundation school. He was offered the job in May, before he won the national title, but it was a plus on the cv to be, as he was then, a regional finalist. He admits to a "very nice" attraction and retention package accompanying his new post as sixth-form co-ordinator for maths and is secure in his ambition to be a headteacher "when I am good enough". He is interested in government proposals for a fast track up the pay spine for teachers prepared to undertake extra training and responsibility.
David Waugh admits being crowned best teacher at 24 is not easy. "People are waiting for me to prove myself or fall on my face. I feel a bit more self-conscious," he says. "I feel that if I have trouble with a class, people are going to ask 'What did he win the award for?' " Barbara Berryman, 59, headteacher at Marshfields School in Peterborough, and holder of the contribution to school leadership in a secondary school award, says, like all the others, that she never expected to win. But that sprang more from hard-nosed considerations than the modesty which pervades the profession.
Marshfields School takes children from eight to 18 with moderate learning difficulties, and, in a political climate strongly favouring inclusive education, Mrs Berryman did not expect the achievements of her school to be publicly recognised. "I felt there was no way it would be acceptable to put a special head in that position. I thought it would have gone to a mainstream comprehensive with an acceptable level of A-Cs. The trustees were brave to stick their necks out."
Mrs Berryman - who calls her Plato "God in a Jar", after a child asked if the old man with the beard was He - is gratified by what the award has done, for school morale and for special schools in general. "Nobody's daft enough to think I'm the best, but they do think that this school has done OK," she says. "Children are made to feel that special school is the end of the road, but we try to make them feel it's the best place in the world to come to. Colleagues who rang and sent cards were delighted that good things happening in special schools could be celebrated."
Marshfields has had a good year, with an MBE for the head in January, a glowing OFSTED in spring and then the Plato in July. Which has meant most? Mrs Berryman elegantly sidesteps the question. "Miss getting an MBE is a bit remote," she says. "The Ofsted inspection - well, that doesn't mean much to children. But Miss on the telly... they thought that was really great."
Although all the winners report raised morale in school and beyond, the award's aim of spreading good practice has so far been a more hit-or-miss affair. David Waugh has a slight sense of frustration that the trust has not asked him to go into colleges and universities and inspire student teachers and undergraduates. "I'm a maths teacher, I'm earning quite a bit and I'm 24," he says. "It's only two years since I was where they are."
While some award winners have been invited to attend seminars, sit on committees and brainstorm in high places, others have not. Diana Sperry, recognised for creative use of ICT in a primary, has been to a conference on global technology in Melbourne, courtesy of the Department for Education and Employment, and is hosting school standards minister Estelle Morris at school later this month.
Some - Barbara Berryman, for instance - already had a high profile locally and nationally. Others believe they are still learning. Best new teacher in a primary Flo Witcombe, 29, teaches at Inverteign Junior School in Devon, and has agreed to lend her services to the Teacher Training Agency as an advocate for newly qualified teachers.
Trained as an actress before she went into teaching, she at least is not camera-shy. "It's been lovely being a bit famous," she says. "And it's been great for the school - raised our profile." But she doesn't see herself as an example to other teachers. "I'm still a baby. I could do with some advice myself."
The trust is looking at the possibility of offering training opportunities to future winners, as many of this committed bunch are more interested in improving their practice than resting on their laurels. No-one could accuse secondary teacher of the year Romilda Scannelli, for instance, of complacency. "I'd actually just like to be a really good teacher," she says. "At the minute, I'm still trying."
The Teaching Awards Trust, tel: 0171 388 191