A prize for good practice

17th February 2006 at 00:00
The STAR awards are giving teachers a chance to shine, says Martin Whittaker

Since he won a STAR award in 2004, biology teacher Richard Spencer has found he is very much in demand. He has appeared on politics programmes on television, and has run courses and produced resources for fellow teachers to share his creative teaching methods. He uses games such as bingo and wheel of fortune to engage his students.

Most recently, he gave a talk to a group of luminaries at the Royal Society, in which he had them dancing to "Blame it on the Boogie" by the Jackson Five - a teaching method he uses to demonstrate the structure of DNA. Mr Spencer, who teaches at Bede college in Billingham near Middlesbrough, says being an award winner has given him kudos outside his own institution. "I always try to develop what I do," he said. "I do it for the students and what goes on in the classroom. But winning the award has given me a kind of status."

It is now three years since the Government launched the STAR awards for the learning and skills sector as part of its Success for All strategy.

The scheme's aim was to raise staff morale by recognising the unseen work of teachers, lecturers, work-based trainers, support staff and managers.

Awards organisers say that so far the scheme has recognised more than 5,000 people. Those shortlisted attend a national awards ceremony in October, while individual winners receive a trophy, a pound;2,000 cash prize and certificate. Nominations are now open for the 2006 awards. Further education minister Bill Rammell said: "Historically within the education world, there has been an antipathy towards singling individuals out as success stories.

"I fundamentally believe that's the wrong view. We're not singling one individual out and saying you are good and everybody else is bad. We are singling those people out as demonstrators of good practice across the sector."

But what impact is the awards scheme having? Is it succeeding in raising the profile of the sector and the morale of those working in it? The annual awards ceremony is a glittering affair, complete with red carpet, champagne, celebrity presenters and the great and the good from the sector.

But at last October's ceremony, the FE minister, policy makers, heads of quangos and college principals were sat at the front of the hall, while those shortlisted - ie those who the awards were celebrating - were at the back. "Shouldn't it be the other way around?" asked one observer.

Another question is this. While the awards generate much publicity for the winners and their institutions, does it give them a lasting status, or is it simply 15 minutes of fame? It's all very well shining the spotlight on all that expertise and good practice, but how do you then bottle and sell it? Dr Peter Lavender of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, one of the awards' sponsors, said: "Celebrating teaching and learning is desperately needed because everything you hear about education is bad news. The awards have been successful, but how widely?"

The Department for Education and Skills is about to hand over the STAR awards to the new Quality Improvement Agency. The move is providing an opportunity to review the awards - an independent evaluation has been commissioned and is due to be completed in the spring. Kate Anderson, the QIA's director designate of improvement, said: "Once we take over the management of the awards, one of our priorities will be to consider how they can be improved and developed. We want to find the best way of uncovering good practice in the sector, celebrating it and enabling it to be transferred."

Jane Williams, head of the DfES standards unit said the department is reviewing how it can harness the impact of the award scheme to raise standards across the system.

"An awards scheme isn't just about celebrating success, it isn't just the PR and public image," she said. "It's seeing the way in which it can have a tangible impact on motivating others in the learning and skills workforce."

Joy Mosley, head of the department for foundation studies at Exeter college was among the first year of STAR award winners. She says enrolments from disabled learners increased following her winning the award. Eighteen months later she is still seeing its effects. "People are still remembering, and it was such a fantastic award for my department. It put us into the arena of excellence.

"You're never in this business to get a pat on the back. But when it comes to you and to your department, what a difference it makes."

For further information about nominating a STAR please visit the STAR Awards website www.dfes.gov.ukstarawards or call the helpline on 0800 652 0528.

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