A good year for cynics and 'normal' teachers
Nadene Ghouri reports on the heavy political spin put on the honours awarded to those in the education world.
The 1998 honours list really proved that education is right at the top of the Government's agenda - or so the Downing Street spin doctors would have us believe.
Back in July last year the Prime Minister was already publicly promising "Sirs for sirs", and allegedly instructed staff to start trawling for names of the most deserving teachers.
However, last week's major teaching honours were by no means the first. Two heads of large London comprehensive schools had been rewarded by Harold Wilson's Labour Government. They were Dame Mary Green, headmistress of Kidbrooke school, in 1968 and Dame Margaret Miles, headmistress of Mayfield school in Putney in 1970.
A Downing Street spokesman this week admitted that gongs have been given out for general services to education for years, but that the 1998 New Year's honours marked a turning point in terms of the number of high-level awards given to ordinary serving teachers.
He said: "Janitors and university professors aside, we reckon we have doubled the number of awards given to people who can fairly be called normal teachers. The previous four honours lists averaged around 12 teachers, this year we had 23. We think it's quite clear the 1998 honours reflects a real emphasis on education, just as we said. And let's face it, you had to go back over a quarter of a century to find the last time a teacher received the highest level award like a Dame of the British Empire."
However, last January Robin Squire, then a minister for education, said there had been 24 teacher recipients of OBEs and MBEs in the 1997 list. "This number is typical of the awards received by teachers in each of the twice-yearly honours rounds."
The spokesman, when informed of this, suggested that Mr Squire had probably not meant ordinary working teachers.
Who nominated who is strictly confidential; but education officials are keen to point out that nominations came from local education authorities, governors, parents and staff. Overall, 44 per cent of those who received gongs of some kind this year were nominated by "ordinary folk", under the scheme devised by John Major.
No matter where the nominations originated, the awards largely reflect the Government's own preoccupations and perhaps also the fact that an education insider, Professor Michael Barber, now heads his own unit within the Department for Education and Employment.
Alongside the bedrock of long-serving staff on the lists are the new, bright breed of heads who have rescued failing schools. At least three recipients sit on task forces: Carol Evans CBE on standards, John Botham OBE on literacy and Peter Blake OBE on a sports committee. And then there are the educational high-flyers, like Dame Pat Collarbone, who turned round Haggerston School in Hackney.
But the Downing Streetspokesman said it would be unfair to draw attention to links between recipients and the Government. "No one here devalues the importance of working in education and particularly in turning around failing inner-city schools. I know some people call the honours system elitist, but they exist as one of the best ways of highlighting achievement."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, admits to cynicism: "Sincere congratulations to everyone who got one. But a lot of teachers are suspicious of this sort of thing as the whole process is clouded in secrecy. Awards have been given for services to education for some time, I don't understand why the Government have made such a song and dance about this year."
Full list gong tips, page 16
Comment, page 19