Awards are already giving the sector a much-needed boost. Ian Nash reports
Prison education in the east of England surged in popularity after a local tutor won a prestigious national award for his efforts.
The Star Awards - variously dubbed the "Oscars", "Baftas" and "Brit Awards" for learning and skills - were launched in 2003 to celebrate unsung heroes and raise the profile of a new post-16 sector combining colleges, adult and community centres and work-related training.
Ben Butler, a lecturer in English and maths at City college, Norwich, who won Offender Tutor of the Year, one of 13 under the Star banner, is in no doubt about the power of the awards. Recruitment for prison education was a problem until a blaze of local publicity changed things.
"We have had half a dozen applicants and four successful appointments from college staff to come to work in the prison," he said. Interest continues to grow.
Ben's story and similar tales of success across the country are told in a 16-page Learning Reforms special report, free with The TES this week, on the Star awards. The awards for which The TES is media sponsor have their roots in Success for All, the Department for Education and Skills strategy for further education and training published in 2002. The then education secretary Charles Clarke launched the awards in the following year. He said he hoped they would create a "feelgood factor".
In 2004, the first year of the awards, there were more than 1,600 nominations, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 130. The competition culminated last October in a glitzy award ceremony and gala dinner in London, when winners were presented with a trophy and pound;1,000 cheque. This year, the prize money has doubled to pound;2,000 and new awards have been added to the list.
Kim Howells, minister for further and higher education, is the man in charge of the awards this year. As nominations opened, he made an appeal to all in the learning and skills sector to raise the profile even further.
"I am writing to every MP to ask what they are doing to get the machine rolling in their constituencies," he said. He also wants more organisations to give thought to nominating people.
"It should not just be left to colleagues and departmental staff. If we can get the local Learning and Skills Councils and regional development agencies to put people forward, it will help everyone think more seriously about what the learning and skills sector is aiming to do."
And Dr Howells wants even more awards added to the list. "There should be one for sustainable regeneration, to reflect just how much work our colleges do - which so often goes unnoticed - in improving the environment around us."
Last year's awards reflected the wide range of colleges' and training providers' activities. Geoff Hanley was nominated for a Star award last year for his work on a project based in Liverpool's Albert Dock. He trained hundreds of volunteers in traditional maritime skills through a scheme to restore the "Zebu", a 1938 ship built for the Baltic timber trade.
Many nominees and winners were hurled into the limelight of local television. Richard Spencer got the call to become a media pundit in a live discussion reviewing Sunday papers for Tyne Tees Television. He had been nominated FE Tutor of the Year by his principal Miriam Stanton at Bede college in Cleveland and found himself rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as Alastair Campbell at the Association of Colleges' annual conference.
Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the DfES, sees a potential army of ambassadors for learning and skills in the Star nominees and winners. "I am delighted that there seems to have been such an interest in and welcome for the awards so quickly," he said.
He also noted that there was far less cynicism than there was about the National Teaching Awards for schools launched some years earlier in a blaze of publicity by film producer David Puttnam.
Sir David identified three reasons. First, the public was possibly less cynical about government investment than it was seven years ago. Second, the sector "owned and helped shape" the Star award scheme, it was not imposed on people.
Third, the move from a career civil service to one that recruits specialists brought top college and training managers into the corridors of power in the DfES headquarters and Whitehall. For example, former FE inspector and principal of Leicester college, Janice Shiner, is DfES director general for learning and skills.
Sir David said that he learning and skills sector was about more than institutions and government strategies. "It is the people who matter, and the Star awards help to define nationally and in personal terms what those people do."
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