Stars should now take centre stage;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
LAST term ended on a rare high note. The Teacher as Star. There may have been doubts about Lord Puttnam, one of the Tony's-cronies vintage of peers, in his role of education adviser and standards task forcer, but you had to hand it to him. He had pulled off an unexpected coup.

Few of his film productions could have presented such a prickly bouquet of challenges as that Sunday night in July when David Puttnam managed to get it all together: to celebrate teachers, to overturn the entrenched resistance of the teachers and their leaders; to win solid financial backing from sponsors, the services of an army of expert judges and, the final triumph, a BBC1 Showcase slot.

Just for once, the audience at home was not perceiving teachers and their teaching through the murky filter of a hostile press, but in the round - as the warm human beings and superlative professionals that many parents recognise from their own children's schools. Was it a one-off heart-warmer, or was it a turning-point?

Now we are at the start of a new term, with the glow of those superteachers and their video-

vignettes a summer away, and the question is: has anything has changed? Has Lord Puttnam got it all to do again, or are teachers ready at last to accept that some are more equal than others? And maybe it isn't wrong, or divisive, to say so.

For there isn't much doubt that the toughest obstacle Lord Puttnam faced in his latest production was to persuade the teachers to take part. In the United States the teacher of the year proudly accepts an invitation to dinner at the White House, but when the Jerwood Foundation tried to donate millions in this country in the same cause, it had to give up because so few teachers were willing to compete.

Many others - including The TES -- have tried to run competitions that would boost teachers in the public eye, but they have failed because potential winners have refused to be singled out; "it's the department, the school, the team, that should get the credit." Sadly, this stance is self-defeating in two key respects.

First, as everyone in the media knows, news - especially good news - lacks impact unless it is made personal. Refuse to single out anyone for readers to relate to, and the story goes unread, or unwritten. And if you don't have stories about individual teachers and schools doing an impressive job, it's that much easier for others to demonise them. Second, the team myth is a dangerous smokescreen.

OK, so the best schools, businesses, football squads and armies march on teamwork, and what goes on behind the classroom door is your business. But the truth is that some people work harder and more effectively than others, and that the rest of the team know perfectly well which is which. The danger comes when the team myth is used to cover up the failures, as well as to deny credit to the stars, and that is when public support falters.

All this is relevant at the start of a new school year, as the Green Paper consultation moves into its end-game. At its heart lies the conflict between the traditional public pay-round and this Government's commitment to higher rewards for superior performance. Critics claim such an approach is incompatible with the collegiate staff-room, but are they mutually exclusive?

I have yet to see the argument teased out. The collegiate approach may have replaced the hierarchical style in schools, but it is just another term for team, and equally likely to blur the good and the bad. Could it be that star treatment for teachers is only the first step? All the Puttnam award winners praised the team back home. But maybe the next move is to accept that the stars should be paid more too.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES from 1989-1997

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