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Shiny unhappy teachers

Glitzy awards will not wipe away the harsh realities of teaching, writes Richard Knights

Imagine you've just been mugged, you're recovering in the casualty ward and then your assailant sidles in and whispers into your blood-stained ear that they've entered you into a beauty competition. That could be one explanation why the government-backed Teaching Awards have not gained universal popularity amongst the profession.

Maybe in our wannabe celebrity-obsessed culture, where everyone wants to be infamous for 15 minutes, the Teaching Awards were always going to languish in obscurity. How can the story of Miss Jones, who's devoted 30 years to teaching autistic kids in Neasden, compare or compete with that Hello! exclusive: "My divorce and drugs detox hell"?

The awards began with the best of intentions - they represented a brave attempt to talk up teaching and celebrate achievement. They've tried to reflect the diverse nature of the profession; they haven't just gone to bright young things on the promotion ladder. One of this year's regional winners for lifetime achievement was a deputy head described as the "lynchpin" of a troubled school that had been overseen by five headteachers in two years.

But four years on, the Teaching Awards have failed to capture a place in teachers' hearts. This spring the organisers commissioned research, co-funded by the Department for Education and Skills, into what people thought about the awards. In a newspaper interview, chief executive David Hanson described the findings but refused to reveal a full copy of the report. The best spin he could put on it was that 70 per cent of people thought it had raised the profile of teachers - hardly a ringing endorsement. Every survey has identified workload as teachers' main complaint, yet the awards may seem to justify, legitimise or even glorify the long-hours culture. Are the winners necessarily good role models? One teacher spent two or three hours every night and all day Sunday on lesson preparation and marking; he also used his summer holidays to paint his classroom.

Just as Happy Days was not an accurate portrayal of America in the 1950s, so the Teaching Awards jar against reality. The constant spin from the DfES seems to emanate from some parallel universe where schools are inhabited by shiny happy teachers - read the risible DfES Teacher magazine for confirmation of this, as ministers tour the modern equivalent of the Potemkin villages.

The most extensive survey of teacher morale in which 70,011 teachers participated was carried out by the General Teaching Council in 2002. One in three expected to leave teaching within five years in protest at workload, government interference and poor pupil behaviour. More than half said their morale was lower than when they joined the profession, a third would not go into teaching if they had their time again.

Three years ago the Health and Safety Executive undertook an extensive survey on stress at work and found the most stressful job was teaching.

This year academics from England and Holland compared teacher stress levels in 11 European countries. Teachers in England scored a third higher on emotional exhaustion and overall reported not just more burn-out but also lower job satisfaction.

There are many brilliant teachers who illuminate the finals of the Teaching Awards. So what are the qualities that characterise a great teacher? Passion for their subject, the ability to communicate, enthusiasm, empathy with children, sense of humour, consistency; but a key factor is confidence; confidence to take risks, change tack in a lesson, depart from the prepared script, improvise and inspire.

Yet the past two decades have destroyed teachers' control and autonomy over the curriculum. Teachers are no longer to be trusted; they have become technicians rather than pedagogues.

The Teaching Awards are struggling with the image problem that they're just for ambitious workaholic geeks from the sort of schools featured in the DfES teaching videos - rows of rosy-cheeked children in brand new uniforms, listening with rapt attention to every word their teachers utter - it's school Jim, but not as we know it. And then there's the flaky ceremony where the finalists are slavered over by D-list celebs. I'm not intrinsically opposed to lachrymose award ceremonies, it's just the wrong award at the wrong time.

Against the general background of stress-inducing workloads, long hours, difficult children, a prescriptive curriculum, fear of inspection and the target-driven culture of testing, the Teaching Awards will remain a lit match in a dark universe.

Richard Knights teaches at a primary school in Merseyside. The Teaching Awards ceremony will be held at London's Palace Theatre on Sunday

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