The idea of National Teaching Awards was first floated more than a year ago, to a less than rapturous response from the profession. "Teaching Oscars", as they were immediately dubbed, were predicted to be divisive, gimmicky and altogether at odds with the low-profile collegiality typical of school staffrooms. Now, on the eve of the first awards ceremony, the mood is more upbeat - champagne rather than sour grapes, and those involved express genuine excitement about this celebration of the secret life of classrooms.
Judith Mullen, president of the Secondary Heads Association, is one of many who expressed initial misgivings. She came to the judging panel with "total scepticism", she admits, because her association had already signed up and she thought she might as well take a critical view from inside rather than outside. "I was wrong," she says now. "I'm a convert. I've seen the delight of good professionals being recognised by their peers."
As a regional judge, Mrs Mullen observed one candidate who caused her to come out to her car afterwards and have a professional wobble. "I thought 'my God!'. What this woman had achieved - the regard and respect and warmth with which she was held by all the people in that school - was something I would aspire to for the rest of my career. It made me feel very humble."
Many of the judges express similarly strong feelings about what they have seen in previously unsung schools. David Reynolds - professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and an adviser at the Department for Education and Employment - led the judging in the category of School Leadership in Primary Schools. "I did not realise it would move me as it has done. I've seen such wonderful people, and the qualities of headteachership exhibited - often against the odds of social disadvantage - are extraordinary."
Despite a disappointingly low number of nominations - only around 1,000 for this first year, the calibre of finalists is obviously all the judges had hoped. David Reynolds talks of "world-class, world-beating practice". David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers talks of the difficulty of "choosing between so many outstanding candidates". Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers says the degree of brilliance staggered the judges.
Such full-blown language, while mandatory among actors, is unfamiliar in education. Finalist Jane Roberts is modestly pleased about her success rather than completely Paltrowed. "I feel a tremendous sense of pride," she says. "The students know, and some of them thought I'd been knighted - they wanted to know if I was still Miss Roberts. And I've noticed I get more food at lunchtime!" Her southern region award for Secondary Teacher of the Year (real crystal, she notes) is gathering fingerprints on the mantelpiece of the house she shares with other teachers.
Despite the talk of divisiveness, colleagues of the finalists seem rather to enjoy basking in a warm glow. Alison Youd is headteacher of Watergate School, a south London special school in special measures until late 1997, but where teacher Wendy Hasnip is a finalist. "It's been a tremendous morale boost," says Alison Youd. "This has really helped us believe that we are doing it right and that we have solved many of our problems." Similarly, staff at Poplars County primary, Lowestoft, Suffolk, are thrilled, while finalist Emma Rippingale is squirming slightly in the spotlight. "It's nerve-racking," says the 25-year-old. "The attention, the photographs - it's all a bit of a blur. I'd gone to the regional finals not even considering that I'd win."
This Sunday, finalists from around England - all of whom, like Emma Rippingale, have already won awards in 10 regions - will congregate in London to hear the judges' decisions on 14 national awards, from Best New Teacher to Lifetime Achievement. The national winners will each receive pound;20,000 for their schools (but nothing for themselves, as some finalists are having to make clear to colleagues).
Echoing the other Oscars, the ceremony will be broadcast live on television (BBC1) and will feature unrehearsed responses from winning schools as they receive the good news from what the organisers term "a variety of top celebrities", introduced by Stephen Fry and Gaby Roslin. Lord Puttnam, chair of the Teaching Awards Trust and its most high-profile advocate, promises "great television".
Lord Puttnam insists that the awards are more than mutual back-slapping. "In an era of league tables and measurables, we need also the world of the unmeasurable," he says.
The process of peer nomination is considered to have struck a gentle blow against performance-related pay. But do the prizes lose their glitter when set against a backdrop of "15,000 bad teachers" and "failing schools" to quote Chris Woodhead. To David Puttnam, there is no contradiction. "Teachers know who other good teachers are and there's little rancour or jealousy, just admiration," he says. "But little has been done to enable the best to flush out the worst, the few staffroom moaners who are a blight on the profession."
The trust set up to run the awards has taken care to draw in people from across the education spectrum. All the unions are represented ("heroes of the hour", says Lord Puttnam, "they took a chance") as are academics, headteachers, local education authorities, school governors, faith bodies, and the media. Sir John Harvey-Jones, former chairman of ICI, television "troubleshooter", and buoyant enough to keep anything afloat, is the national chair of judges.
The awards for England are funded for two years, with pound;3 million from Lloyds TSB topped up by four other sponsors. Trust members hope the awards will include Wales and Scotland next year and become part of national life, as they are in the United States and Canada. Three times the number of nominations are predicted for 2000.
Some of those involved believe this unfamiliar intoxication over the success of schools and teachers may herald a wider change in attitudes. "The most valuable thing is the profession saying that despite the difficulties of the past 20 years there are some bloody good people out there doing some fine work and here are some examples," says Nigel de Gruchy. "Initially we thought it was a good little thing to happen. But it's exceeded my expectations. We've tapped into something that's bigger."
* Emma Rippingale, 25, is in her second year at Poplars County primary in Lowestoft, Suffolk, where she teaches a Year 1 class. She has won the Best New Teacher in a Primary School category sponsored by Dorling Kindersley for the east of England region and is one of 10 national finalists. The judging panel said that observing her teaching was "an inspirational experience" - but Emma says she doesn't do anything other teachers don't.
"What I do in the classroom is almost instinctive. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in primary school - it was a home away from home and I always felt happy and secure there. Now I just feel at home with the children and I have the idea that if I'm looking forward to the lesson, they'll enjoy it too.
"We were a pilot school for the Numeracy Project, and we took on literacy as a pilot early. We've really worked on those, doing a lot of group work on the carpet and whole-class teaching, mental maths and differentiated teaching, and I do concentrate on practical work because I think children start from their own experience.
"Recently we've used Snakes and Ladders games in number work, and empty lemonade bottles as skittles to do subtraction. It's much more meaningful than giving them a page of subtractions on a piece of paper, and I try to get variety into the lessons. We did Goldilocks with finger puppets and role-play, when the children passed a teddy round the circle and took it in turns to tell the next sequence in the story. It's wonderful to see them doing work that you probably wouldn't have got if you'd said 'go to your table and write a story'.
"My philosophy is to make learning enjoyable for children and something they want to do. If it comes from them it makes a big difference, because they feel they're in control. Sometimes we can spend all morning doing a really complex piece of work and at lunch time they'll turn around and say 'we haven't done any work today, miss'. I love that."
* Wendy Hasnip was nominated by the staff of the 65-pupil Watergate school in Lewisham, south London, for the Teacher of the Year in a Special School award, sponsored by Railtrack, and has won the southern title. Aged 46, she has six sons between 14 and 23 but often treks into school in the mornings with a shopping trolley full of bobbly, tasselled castles she has made the night before from fabric scraps, or a live rabbit in a bag on her back "if we need it for assembly". She makes tireless efforts to reach children with severe learning difficulties, and they work. Her outstanding achievement, says one of her colleagues, is that "she liberates children".
"It's been a long process to get these children into the education system," says Wendy Hasnip, "and they're doing very well because we expect a lot out of them." This is immediately evident on the classroom walls, where you can see that the children have been observing paintings by Mir" and Andy Warhol, empathising with the feelings of injured child refugees from Kosovo, and flying home-made butterflies from the ceiling.
Wendy's class contains 10 children, mainly eight and nine years old, with a wide range of special needs. "I try very hard to get one-to-one with the children," she says. "It's important because their levels are so different and we need to stretch them as much as possible."
This morning, though, is a whole-class activity, reading a story about Biff and Chip falling out over the new go-kart dad has made for them. But what ensues in Starfish class is a piece of marvellous, improvised theatre in which everyone has a part to play.
First Stevie, an academically capable girl physically disabled by cerebral palsy, uses one hand to twitch the cloth off the go-kart which school-keeper Alan Parsons has made (with one of Wendy's old trollies and a cut-down school chair).
A thrilling hour follows, in which one habitually mute boy speaks excitedly, everyone gets a turn both at steering and at being passenger on the go-kart - including the children who have to be lifted out of their standing frames to do so - while others point out words and turn pages on a large book. Children without speech contribute by activating a tape with their hands at appropriate moments.
Two children enact the dispute between Biff and Chip, the whole class imitates dad's angry roaring, and Eva - who arrived in September in nappies and unable to recognise letters - reads the entire book aloud. Wendy Hasnip leads the process, wheeling children backwards and forwards in the go-kart, using a mixture of speech, Makaton sign language, eye contact and experience to elicit responses to the story.
Wendy Hasnip makes most of the resources she uses herself. "Everything has to be invented," she says. "It's always making, all the time." She makes individual books for the children, using symbols and photographs from their own lives. Some will become readers, others will gain pleasure from seeing themselves on a shiny surface in the book, or from touching a fluffy cover. There is no child, she says, who cannot respond to teaching.
"Commun-ication is the big thing. We need to know how they can achieve."
Jane Roberts is a finalist in the Secondary Teacher of the Year category, and winner of the southern region award for that category. Aged 45, she is head of speech and drama at Collingwood College in Camberley, Surrey, a 2,000-pupil foundation school where she has taught for 16 years (and where another teacher reached the regional finals in the Lifetime Achievement category.) Known to colleagues as JR, Jane Roberts has raised pound;100,000 for cancer research through annual fashion shows in which the whole school takes part, and was described in one testimonial as "quite possibly a magician" in the classroom.
With 25 years' experience of teaching in a borstal, a convent and two urban comprehensives, she believes she has learned a few tricks of the trade.
"When I was a young teacher, it was other teachers who influenced me the most," she says. "They showed me how to find my feet, deal with the real nitty-gritty of survival, get out of tricky situations. Now I do mentoring myself, but not on any formal basis. It's very much 'if you're free, come into the classroom for five minutes'.
"I am firm but fair.
You can do it all with the voice. I'm lucky because I have confidence and a voice I can use. All newly qualified teachers should be given voice workshops - so many of them wreck their voices when they start because they don't know how to project, don't know how to get the power from the diaphragm. You tense up, and your tone becomes strident - then sometimes this awful screech comes out."
Jane Roberts is frank about the sometimes unpredictable nature of teaching.
"There's no such thing as the perfect lesson. Everybody has bloody awful days and one of the most important things is being able to sort out problems. You need adaptability because even the weather will affect the class - if it's the first snowfall of the year or very hot no-one can concentrate. It's about understanding the situation as it happens, and having a sense of humour.
"I like the fact that every lesson is different, I like seeing children succeed, blossom, flourish," she says. "I love it when they come back and visit you - there's a tremendous pride in seeing someone grow from age 11 to an adult."
* Bob Jennings is a national finalist in the Camelot Award for Working with Parents and the Community in a Secondary School - for which he has won the western regional title. The 49-year-old geography teacher has been at St George Community school, Bristol, an 830-pupil comprehensive,22 years and has been director of community development since St George's became a community school five years ago. The school serves a disadvantaged multi-racial community - "the typical tough environment you'd find in any major city," says Bob Jennings.
Mr Jennings, who was nominated for the award by headteacher Ray Priest, has responsibility for making lifelong learning mean something in an area where many people speak English as a second language and others suffer from the legacy of school failure. "What we don't run here is evening classes for people who want to do a bit of batik or pottery and can get in the car and drive somewhere for that," says Bob Jennings.
In the evenings and at weekends, St George's buzzes with people of all ages, improving their literacy, playing sports or learning Arabic. Learning to use the Internet is proving hugely popular with elderly people, and an evening computer club is attended by 45 families, some with children as young as two or three. "We have wonderful evenings with children showing mum and dad the way round a mouse," says Bob Jennings.
The key, he says, is to use children to reach the wider community and motivate adults. "When students join St George's, it's the family that joins, not just the child. The focus is on families sitting together and learning together." The school can provide an Urdu computer package - with keyboard and software, uses community workers rather than teachers to make out-of-hours activities more adult-friendly, buses pensioners over from their day centres for IT workshops and raises money from business - pound;140,000 this year - to pay for it all.
"There are two key things we're doing," says Bob Jennings. "Offering lifelong learning, and playing a role in local regeneration. It's a changing role for schools, because this resource is too big for 9am to 3.30pm - in an area like this it's probably the biggest resource there is. Learning through the family unit is the pivotal bit of what's happening here and it's powerful stuff."