15th June 2001 at 01:00
The Teaching Awards were launched two years ago in a blaze of New Labour hype. Television joyfully jumped on the bandwagon and the final was broadcast live in a two-hour peak-time spectacular in November 1999. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. The teaching unions, the political parties, the Guardian, the great and the good of the educational world all came out in support. Sure, there were a few dissenting voices, but not from anyone with any real clout. And if a wonderful sceptic like Ted Wragg could put his not inconsiderable weight behind the scheme, then, thought most of us, it couldn't be all bad. In any case, it was two years ago that the teacher recruitment crisis really began to bite; a further reason to give any scheme, however lightweight, the benefit of the doubt.

Media interest in last year's awards waned somewhat. The television spectacular was reduced to 50 minutes on a Sunday afternoon (for all that, an infinitely better programme than the previous year's marathon effort). The organisers were able to stimulate a large number of nominations but only after a double dose of bumph and an extension to the closing deadline.

My fear is that this year the task has been even harder. There is, as yet, no firm indication that the awards will become a familiar and convincing part of the educational calendar.

Why? Why are schools so hesitant about putting colleagues forward? It's commonly assumed that they're reluctant because they regard it as invidious to reward one individual when so much of what is best about schools is a result of teamwork. Then there is the widespread view that it's nigh on impossible to define who is, or is not, the best teacher.

In the end, it's probably best explained by cautiousness. Schools are wary of upsetting other staff - and they fear another mountain of paperwork.

Ironically, it may be that previous winners, especially this year, have not heled the organisers' cause. It's been obvious for 10 years or more that my school has a unique teacher. The evidence is there for all to see - which makes it easier to decide to make a nomination. And who can forget last year's winner, Mary Campbell, the amazing woman from Belfast who teaches special needs children although she's confined to a wheelchair? Just how many teachers are there like her? Ann Samuel has taught in the same village primary school in Wales for 39 years. She was also a pupil there.

The suspicion must be that to be nominated you have to be good, but to win you have to be unique. And unique is not easy to find. Perhaps it's inevitable that the awards would move in this direction. They are caught between a rock and a hard place: if they seek to be representative of good practice it is difficult to see why one teacher is better than another. Rewarding the unique means fewer nominations. And the suspicion must be that the demands of television have made the decision for us. We should never have allowed the sobriquet "teaching Oscars". Oscars in the film world are often awarded as "one-offs" - a great performance in one film perhaps once in a lifetime. Would that it were so easy in teaching.

Where do we go from here? This was a scheme that set out with such good intentions. But if there is any suspicion at all in the minds of the organisers that the awards cannot be sustained, they should take action before it becomes inevitable. Perhaps they should be time-limited and end in 2003; or could they become biennial to give us all breathing space? But, I could be wrong. I've had success in nominating a winner, a high point of my 12-year stint as a head. Just how many more winners are out there?

Dennis Richards Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E school, Harrogate. Cathy Roberts, head of music at the school, was secondary teacher of the year in the 2000 Teaching Awards

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