What makes a top teacher? Michael Duffy reports on nominees for the innovation category of this weekend's National Teaching Awards
There's an innovation in this year's national teaching awards: suitably enough, an award for "innovation in education". It's not entirely new. As David Hanson, chief executive of the Teaching Awards Trust, explains, there has been a category in previous years specifically for innovative use of ICT. "What we want to do now," he says, "is to encourage innovation across the board, in every classroom and every school."
Enter the innovation unit of the Department for Education and Skills, set up in 2002 to act as a catalyst for change in education. It also wants to "encourage innovation at all levels", it says, "and ensure that the talent and energy spread around individual schools is not only recognised and rewarded but also built upon collectively". It was more than willing to sponsor the new award.
The key criterion was that nominees should have created "new ways to further the learning and progress of individual pupils, or of staff, classes or departments, or of a whole school". Judges identified remarkably diverse examples of innovative and creative practice, but the awards trust and the innovation unit were disappointed by the number of nominations. "It seems the people doing fantastic, groundbreaking work think what they do is normal," says Mr Hanson. So next year, innovation will be a strand in all the categories, rather than a stand-alone. "It's a new idea to be encouraging in education," the innovation unit says. "It needs time to get out into the system."
What the award's judges say, with remarkable unanimity, is that innovation is not a new idea at all: it's just not as straightforward as it has been painted. "Teachers always say to me, 'I want to be able to use my imagination'," says Ted Wragg, chair of the national judging panel. "But they feel too tied down by the QCA scheme of work they're following."
Professional Association of Teachers chair Barry Matthews, who judged the innovation award in the north west region, makes a similar point.
"Innovation is difficult. It's not easy to take risks. Teachers are so pounded with legislation that they have little time to think."
There is an issue of interpretation, too. Teachers think first of children in the classroom, whereas the innovation unit tends to think of systemic change. "We are looking for ideas," it says, "that can impact on the system as a whole. We want to ensure that system innovation is recognised."
Mike Partridge, head of education e-services in Stockport and an awards judge, says it is a business model, or even a football one. "It's not like introducing a 4-4-2 formation. In schools, you can't afford to fail.
Schools were unclear as to exactly what was expected - and reluctant to stick their heads over the parapet to say they'd found it."
Stephen Matthews, head of Bryn Elian school in Conwy, confirms this. "Of course we believe in innovation; we were delighted that Jeff Powell, our head of humanities, was named a regional winner. But in many ways the current climate works against it. What would happen, for instance, if we started teaching Year 8 work to Year 7 pupils? You need more than vision and imagination: you need a willingness to take risks. There is a lot of bravery involved. Remember that the innovation unit is part and parcel of the DfES. I can't be the only head to think that's an oxymoron."
One phrase crops up in all the nominations and in all the judges' reports.
The quality all the winners seem to share is the ability to "think out of the box". It is this that links Mr Powell in Wales, for instance, and Frances Wygladala, head of St Kentigern's RC primary school in Blackpool.
Ms Wygladala was the choice of Mike Partridge and Barry Matthews. What she demonstrated, they say, was an ability to find unconventional solutions to all-too-common problems. They cite one example: the school, as many are, was short of classroom space and on a site too small for extra building.
Simple, said Ms Wygladala, we'll build a roof extension. "Creative problem-solving," the judges called it. "But she had the leadership skills to carry it through. Simple ideas, but they're consistent, and they make a difference."
Mr Powell is similar: a guru of ICT, a master of the whiteboard, a regular scavenger of the PC World bargain bin, but first and foremost an inspiring teacher of geography. "Use your camera phones," he told his students, "to take pictures of geographical features. Download them to the departmental website: build up a unique resource all of us can use." It's no wonder, as his head says, that it was the pupils who nominated him.
Soon you realise that, time and energy apart, there are no barriers to this sort of innovation. Ekie Lansdowne-Bridge, in Reading, transformed her special school for excluded children and school refusers by demanding for them the quality of teaching and curriculum that other secondary pupils have of right.
Russell Jones, a classroom teacher at the Geoffrey Chaucer school in the London borough of Southwark - by any standards a demanding school - transformed his pupils' work and attendance by devising for them individual "pathways to success". What was unique about him, his judges said, was that his teaching was "outside-to-in". It was rooted in the actuality of his students' lives, but it showed their potential. "It is imaginative and bold."
So, too, is the work of Fiona Dockrell, who teaches dance and drama to severely autistic children at Gosden House, a special school in Surrey. It is also, say her judges, "very moving". Working in partnership with the Globe Theatre in London, and using the interactive videos it produces, she has been able to familiarise her pupils with the text and they have been able - all of them - to take part in theatre adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. Unsurprisingly, their self-esteem, language and social skills "dramatically improved".
Creativity was central, too, to Anna-Claire Cunningham's nomination. Ms Cunningham, who teaches at the Ashbeach primary school in Cambridgeshire, was convinced that "a daily burst" of art activities for 15 minutes at the start of each day would enhance the core learning of her key stage 2 pupils. So she researched it and, with the confidence that comes of being lead literacy teacher for the LEA, introduced the "Art Start" programme. It was so successful that now the whole school does it. What is more, as her headteacher says, it helps the other teachers to think out of the box. "And that really matters. For children, innovation is literally the future. It's the skill we have to teach them."
Often, the innovations the judges looked at were characterised by (as one of them put it) the "I wish I'd thought of that" factor. Richard Sunderland, for instance, teaches art and design at Devonport high school for girls in Plymouth. His achievement has been to establish a virtual gallery of A-level art in the city: a website on to which teachers in all the local secondary schools can download digital images of their students'
work. It's simple, cheap, and astonishingly effective. As the judges say, anyone can do it: but it took Mr Sunderland to show the way.
Sometimes teachers' innovations harden into something very like the projects the innovation unit hopes for. Baldev Singh's work, for example, at the John Cabot city technology college, South Gloucestershire, is a case in point. He has devised a remarkable web-based citizenship course, "E-Cit", that pupils clamour to follow. Now, other schools can access it too, and it has brought spectacular spin-offs in the form of international e-learning collaboration.
Leanne Dale has exploited online learning technology to extend and deepen students' learning, not just at the Manor college of technology in Hartlepool, where she teaches mathematics, but potentially anywhere. The virtual summer school she created for her Year 10 students is only one example; she went on to devise a fully interactive software package to teach statistics. Predictably, it was snapped up by the educational software market, but Ms Dale has ensured it still reflects the creativity and enjoyment that marks her teaching.
The same can be said of Paul Burch's pioneering use of ICT at Lagan College near Belfast, South Eastern LEA - particularly in the Dreamlab Project, which enables students to draw on professional expertise and software in powerful multimedia workshops and presentations.
All three have brought cutting-edge thinking not just to their own schools but to the wider - indeed, international - educational community. You sense this is the sort of contribution the innovation unit wants to encourage: something that can be developed, modified, fed into the educational system.
But there is, as Ted Wragg says, a more important question. How do you create the conditions where creativity can take root and flourish?
Not, on the basis of this year's award, by planning from the centre. Like enthusiasm, though, innovation is infectious. "It sneaks up and bites you before you realise it is there," is how Mr Burch describes it. "It is a risk," says one headteacher, "but a risk that pays off."
The Teaching Awards were established by Lord Puttnam in 1998 and are managed by an independent charity, the Teaching Awards Trust. They are supported by all the main political parties, the Department for Education and Skills in England, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland and the Welsh Assembly, as well as all the major teaching unions and associations. The final of this year's awards will be held in London on Sunday and will be broadcast on BBC2 at 7pm that day. Nominations for next year's awards are open at www.teachingawards.com