Jane May is one of life's unsung heroines. As well as dealing with visitors on the front desk at Richmond adult community college and ensuring the photocopiers work, her job involves preparing the registers for teachers.
When the computers crashed at the start of one term, she slogged away until 2am, writing out all the class lists so they'd be ready for the next day.
"I just saw that as part and parcel of what I do," says the 48-year-old receptionist.
Now the dedication of college staff like her is to be recognised with a new award. The STAR Award, for which The TESis a media sponsor, was launched by Charles Clarke in November to recognise the achievements of people behind the scenes throughout the learning and skills sector.
Its aim, said the Secretary of State for Education and Skills at the time, is to create "a feel-good factor" for post-16 education and training, to raise the profile of those working in it, and to increase awareness of the sector's work. Unlike their precursor, the STAR National Teaching Awards will be open to everybody from college principals and lecturers to cleaners and creche assistants. They cover a broad church, including FE colleges, local authority adult education institutions, providers in the community and the voluntary sector, and private training providers.
Around 14 winners will get pound;1,000 and a trophy each at a ceremony in mid-October. Organisers say they hope to extend the ceremony into a "national best practice day" for finalists which will include workshops, seminars and networking opportunities.
So will the new gongs give learning and skills a welcome lift, boost staff morale and help ease the recruitment and retention crisis? Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality with the Association of Colleges, a co-organiser of the awards, says: "It's got to have the full package of people thinking it's worthwhile entering, it's worthwhile winning, and getting recognition for that achievement, so that's what we hope to build."
The award has its roots in the Government's FE and training reforms.
Success For All, launched in November 2002, suggested awards that "recognise and celebrate excellence" throughout the sector, building on the success of the teaching awards for schools, But the Department for Education and Skills says there is no direct correlation with the teaching awards for schools. It stresses the difference between the sectors. "The STAR awards are innovative and include people not normally in the frame for awards," says a spokeswoman.
Developing the award involved research among people at all levels across the post-16 sector, says co-organiser Geronimo PR. Feedback from staff indicates that outstanding contributions often go unnoticed, and that winning an award is of lasting pride to the individual.
For Jane May, that is true. Although nominations don't open until the end of February, she will be among the initial batch of nominees. "I'm not a confident person, but knowing that other staff members think I'm doing a good job has given me an enormous boost and makes me very proud," she says.
Another nominee at Richmond college is Mary Tulloch, a 53-year-old ceramics technician. "I was stupefied when I heard I was to be nominated for these prestigious awards," she says. "I'm only doing my job, and if that means going the extra mile, then that's what I do. It is heartening to know that my colleagues appreciate what I do."
Although the college has its own internal award system, principal Christina Conroy OBE, says she believes STAR's value is that it recognises the people who work behind the scenes. A DfES spokeswoman said: "The sector can only gain in stature as a result of recognising its unsung heroes."
Anyone can nominate a candidate, whether they are learners singling out teachers or trainers, managers commending staff or staff drawing attention to the work of managers.
Nominations are open until April 30, 2004. For more details see www.dfes.gov.ukstarawards