Rewards for social heroes;Platform;Opinion

9th July 1999 at 01:00
David Puttnam, who is a member of the standards task force and suggested the teaching awards, says it's too easy to take for granted the work of teachers.

AS SOMEONE who has struggled for years as a film producer, one of the most amazing features in the development of the teaching awards was that everyone I approached to get involved said yes. It seems the time has come for us to start celebrating the good, rather than focusing on the occasional poor classroom practice.

This urgency was reflected, for me, in the willingness of the six English teaching unions and the three main political parties, together with the educational associations, to come on board before any of us had proof that it would work. It was a huge risk for our sponsors, in particular Lloyds TSB, who have shown remarkable foresight in sponsoring the awards for the first two years.

It is not just the sponsors who had to be brave. The teachers who allowed their names to go forward for these awards have participated in something that has never been done before. The 10 English regional events have produced remarkable rewards, not just in cash for the winning schools, but also as unifying celebrations of the learning communities who are hard at work in every region of the country.

As one winner put it: "People never usually tell you that you are doing a good job, they just assume you know." These awards provide us all with the opportunity to tell our teachers that they are, quite simply, the most important people in Britain today.

I was struck by one of Radio 4's recent Thought for the Day contributions. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, summed up the reason why it is so important that we recognise and honour good teachers. He said: "Long ago the Jewish people came to the conclusion that to defend a country you need an army. But to defend civilisation you need schools. The single most important social institution is the place where we hand on our values to the next generation - where we tell our children where we've come from, what ideals we fought for and what we learned on the way. Schools are where we make children our partners in the long and open-ended task of making a more gracious world."

He went on to say: "Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and our future. They're the guardians of our social heritage.

"We have lots of heroes today - sportsmen, media personalities, supermodels. They come, they have their 15 minutes of fame and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life."

I only wish I could have expressed it half as well myself.

But the fact of the matter is, it's all too easy to take the work of these exceptional individuals for granted. It's easy to be complacent about what we expect from teachers, and to overlook the potential they have to change - transform - up to 15,000 lives in an "average" career.

It seems to me that the very best teachers open the door for the individual's natural urge to learn and then harness it. Every toddler wants to get into everything - inquiring, testing their world, learning from their experience. And yet for so many, somewhere along the road, that urge gets switched off. Education is no longer just a process of knowledge transfer; it's increasingly about learning how to learn, and even learning to love learning.

It's all too easy to get hung up on bad news. On Hackney Downs and on The Ridings. But those were two fairly unusual schools.

Standing in front of the hundreds of regional finalists, their colleagues, governors and pupils, I was struck by my ignorance of some of their achievements.

These awards are not about paying sentimental lip-service to a few chosen heroes. There has been much talk about "teaching Oscars", but these awards are about much more than that. The teaching award nominations have been made by the whole school community - governors, teachers, pupils and parents. The 10 regional events were judged by panels of teachers, and the charity established to run the initiative is overseen by the six teaching unions who are its trustees. Sunday July 11 will see a celebration of this profession that is judged by the profession.

I know there are those who believe that to identify an individual - any individual - within the team is to somehow deny the contribution of the rest. But I honestly don't believe that really stands up to scrutiny. I can't tell you what moving and dignified award winners our teachers have been. I think every one of them accepted their awards on behalf of their whole school. They spoke variously of the honour of teaching, of the support of their colleagues and of the community spirit generated by parents and pupils. The nominations testified to the inspiration, hard work, dedication and sheer joy of all our finalist.

Awards won't change the world for teachers. But it's my hope that the live broadcast of the 1999 Teaching Awards final (BBC1, 7pm, Sunday) will go some small way towards recognising how teachers continue to change the lives of others.

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