From prisoners to former pop stars, learning has filled a void for many an adult seeking to advance their education. To get itself noticed the FEsector has launched an awards event to rival the Baftas and the Brits.
Since the STAR Awards for the learning and skills sector were first announced two years ago, the publicity has been peppered with upbeat PR slogans. They have been called the Oscars for learning and skills, and the ceremony has been compared with the Baftas and the Brit Awards in ministerial speeches. The awards will celebrate the "unsung heroes" and aim to generate a "feel-good factor" for the 600,000 people working in the sector.
But behind the hyperbole, are the awards achieving what they set out to achieve? Will they boost morale and raise the sector's profile?
Dan Taubman, who represents the lecturers' union NATFHE on the awards steering group, was sceptical when the scheme was first launched, saying that what would really make a difference would be better pay. "But I have to say in hindsight, I think it has worked," he says. "The awards ceremony was excellent. I thought it hit the right note in terms of the feel of the sector, and there was a good spread of winners."
As well as college management, tutors and those in learning support, winners include those working in parts of the education system that are rarely in the spotlight and are often not widely understood. Even those nominated for an award say the recognition they gained from last October's ceremony has boosted their confidence and the way they do their job, while local publicity has raised the profile of what they do, often with tangible results.
One shortlisted nominee, John Ellis, who runs a mobile learning and information centre in villages in West Berkshire, says more learners are now coming forward and using the facility because of local publicity about his nomination. And Ben Butler, an English and maths lecturer at Her Majesty's Prison, Norwich, says local recruitment difficulties into the prison's education department have now eased thanks to his award highlighting the work of prison education.
The STAR Awards have their roots in Success For All, the Department for Education and Skills strategy for further education and training published in November 2002. Launching the awards a year later, the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, first talked about creating a "feel-good factor" for the learning and skills sector.
In its first year in 2004, the awards had a good response with more than 1,600 nominations. These were whittled down to 130 shortlisted nominees and 13 winners were selected across a range of categories.
The first STAR Awards ceremony and gala dinner was held last October in London, attended by Charles Clarke and Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Kim Howells. It was an atmospheric and often emotional evening as winners walked up the red carpet to receive their trophy, certificate and pound;1,000 prize, while their colleagues paid tribute in video clips projected onto a giant screen.
The evening also showcased some of the work of the sector, including a jazz band from Exeter college, a fashion show from students at Croydon college and artwork from inmates at Feltham Young Offenders' Institute.
On February 7 this year, Dr Howells officially opened nominations for the new round of STAR Awards 2005. "The contribution that front line staff in the learning and skills sector make every day to people's lives and aspirations is immense," said Dr Howells. "These unsung heroes are among our most valuable citizens. Without them this area of the education system wouldn't function. Without them we wouldn't have the skills so essential to the economy."
This year, education and training providers, including colleges, adult and community learning providers, learndirect centres, prisons and work-based learning providers, have received the STAR Awards toolkits. Packs contain nomination forms, a booklet listing prize categories, the criteria for nomination, plus posters and flyers to advertise the awards, and details on how to nominate. The awards ceremony will be held in October at The Brewery in the City of London.
This year the prize money for each winner has doubled to pound;2,000, and the reach of the awards has been extended to cover under-represented areas such as the voluntary sector, and to recognise teamwork and innovative practice.
The number of prize categories has been expanded to include Learning and Skills Subject Learning Coach of the Year, Award for Outstanding Contribution from a Volunteer, Award for Outstanding Team, and two Outstanding Achievement awards - for lifetime achievement, and innovative practice and inspiration.
One of the great challenges for organisers of the STAR Awards is to raise national awareness. In comparison, the annual Teaching Awards are now covered on national television. Geronimo PR, co-organisers of the awards, say the focus has been on gaining publicity in local newspapers and on radio and TV. Some of last year's winners are now involved in a regional radio campaign. "As we move through the different phases of the scheme and as we build year-on-year, ultimately we want to get more national attention," says a spokesperson.
Famous ambassadors who support the awards include , former pop star-turned garden designer Kim Wilde, TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh and fashion designer Bruce Oldfield.