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Reward modesty with a blaze of recognition

Last year one of my final acts as head was to represent the school at a reception for recipients of the Diana memorial awards at 11 Downing Street.

Tobias Neale, then in Oakbank's Year 12, achieved his award for his unstinting work in raising money for charity and for volunteering to help in many school activities. Tobias received a certificate and a lapel pin (plus much kudos); I got to meet Gordon Brown.

We caught the 7.20am from Leeds; two hours to King's Cross. On to Downing Street: an identity check, an airport-style security check on bags, past a few policemen with rifles and pistols in holsters (talking about sandwiches) and in the door. Up the stairs, slowly, past pictures of Baldwin and cartoons of Callaghan and Macmillan into a state room to join the heads of about 100 schools who have successfully nominated students.

I doubt George W visited this room. There are chandeliers and large mirrors, flock wallpaper and cream drapes. But the paintings are dull, the floorboards bare and the paintwork chipped. I like it. It's not the Kremlin or the White House, more a terraced house in a cul-de-sac, slightly shabby and with a trampoline and a slide in the garden next door.

Gordon is late from a Cabinet meeting. He presses the flesh for a minute or two then gives a short speech, some of it about the trust but mostly about the qualities of community service shown by the award winners and how they make Britain a better place in which to live. These are inspiring young people who modestly do their stuff. The awards are a recognition of that; he and the trust are grateful to schools who notice, recognise, encourage and nominate.

I'm humbled by a commitment to values that don't appear in league tables, that aren't the subject of monitoring and pressure, that don't need action plans and milestones and filed-away policies, that don't merit management points. This is about liking working with young people and seeing them grow to responsibility, not motivated by reward.

Two previous winners speak about how the award has encouraged them to go further: to work with the Youth Parliament, the United Nations, community groups. Then lunch in another wood-panelled room, a photo shoot outside the door and back to Keighley, where I ponder how the measuring of the measurable in schools should be balanced by more recognition of the unmeasurable good things that go on. These awards do that. I wish more heads nominated their pupils; fewer than 350 did last year.

John Roberts retired last year as head of Oakbank school in Keighley, Bradford. The Diana memorial awards for young people recognise the achievements of 12 to 18-year-olds 'who do extraordinary things'. The deadline for the next set of nominations is June 18. See www.educationextra.org.ukdiana

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