Teaching Awards 2000 was a magnificent celebration. Each of the 143 category winners who gathered at the Dome in London last Sunday went home with at least pound;3,500 for their school accounts. The 14 UK winners were presented not only with their Plato trophies, but with an extra pound;20,000 for their schools. The event - with mistress of ceremonies Davina McCall - was recorded for TV and will be broadcast this Sunday (BBC1, 4.20pm).
Yet it looked for a time as though it might not happen. In spite of the awards' high media and political profile the first time round last year, there was only a trickle of nominations by this year's closing date. Organisers wrote to schools again and extended the deadline for entries. The judging didn't start until the end of February, when 1,500 nominations were in hand (fewer than expected, given that Wales and Northern Ireland were now included). It was, perhaps, too late for comfort. It meant that, for the national stage, schools were still being visited late in the summer term. But it did produce a hugely impressive list of regional winners.
Sir John Harvey-Jones, the industrialist and management guru who has chaired the judges' panel both years, is positive. "To my surprise," he says, "the entrants were even better than last year - mind-bogglingly good. They were dedicated, totally involved, committed far beyond what we outside would see as the normal line of duty. What moved me most was that all of them found real pleasure in the success of the kids. Sometimes, I know, they are the only people who do. And all of them tell us about the people who help and support them. It's astonishingly moving."
True, Sir John is not a teacher. There is a rosy tint, perhaps, in his view of schools. But the judges' panel, like the 12 (10 regional plus Northern Ireland and Wales) that support it, is composed of men and women who really know about schools and education. Frances Ravel, for instance, chair of the north of England panel, is deputy head at Bruntcliffe high school in Leeds. Her panel's first task was to select the regional finalists in each of the 14 categories. Then it arranged for at least two of its members to visit each of them and hear what local people as well as colleagues, pupils, governors and parents had to say about them. Then the regional winners were announced and Frances moved to the national judging panel, which went through the same steps to select the national winners.
"It is an unforgettable experience," she says. "You meet superb teachers, watch wonderfully upbeat lessons and hear praise and thanks for what teachers are achieving. It's a positive recognition of what schools are doing - a far cry from the negative messages Ofsted far too frequently delivers."
Then why do so few schools put nominations forward? Professor Ted Wragg, chair of the south-west England panel, has few doubts. Given the background - the introduction of threshold assessment and performance-related pay and the uncertainties about how it would work - he says it was a difficult time for heads and governors to identify individual "outstanding teachers". Understandably, they wanted to play safe.
So did the teachers. "They thought the award was going to be divisive," says Professor Wragg. "And you can understand that. There is a culture of collegiality in schools - it is one of their strengths. So it was unfortunate that the press so quickly dubbed the awards 'the Teaching Oscars'. Teachers aren't Olympians. They always tell you 'I'm not the best' - and they mean it." Last year's final, when winner after winner thanked the colleagues who had helped and supported them, was significant as well as moving.
"It's not about individuals - and it is a marathon, not a sprint," says Professor Wragg. "The real message is that the awards scheme is less about picking winners than describing the types of people who make good teachers. We all know them - the dedicated type, the passionate enthusiast, the brilliant technician, the perennial optimist, the patient saint. It's about recognising the real strength of our profession."
What types, then, do this year's winners represent? Jane Dowell, winner of the award for excellence in special needs teaching in a secondary school, laughs at the question. "I've no idea," she says. "I only know I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher. And though I'm 58, I'm certainly not thinking of retirement."
Yet she works in a school that many teachers would regard as particularly challenging. For Jane, Piper Hill school in Manchester - a school for pupils aged 11-18 with severe and multiple learning disabilities - is "truly inspiring" to work in. "I simply don't believe there is a limit to what we can do for these young people," she says. Some have such profound disabilities that only through touch, hearing or smell can they experience learning. Watch Jane teaching with them, and your sense of what is possible suddenly enlarges. An RE lesson on Creation, for example, weaves colour, light and sound - in this case, African and Asian rhythms, and the music of Copland and Strauss - into a genuinely creative experience. A lesson about the world of work brings a mechanic and his tools to school. Another turns the classroom into a bakery, and fills the school with the aroma of freshly baked bread. "It's exciting," says Jane Dowell. As exciting as the Teaching Awards citation? She laughs. In a sense, she says, it's all misleading. "I lead a class team, I'm a member of a department team. I'm a teacher. I'm as good as my team. There are lots and lots of people who are just as good as me."
Catherine Samuel says the same. She describes herself as "an ordinary lady from a working-class home". Her award is for life-time achievement - recognition of a career, almost all of which has been spent in the same primary school she attended as a child half a century ago. They're proud of her in the village of Seven Sisters, south Wales - when she won the Welsh award, they hung flags and bunting from the houses. "I couldn't help thinking how pleased my coalminer dad would have been to see it. He was so proud of his two schoolteacher daughters."
Well, now she is deputy head of Blaendulais primary school. She knows all the children, all the parents and most of the grandparents. It was her work in early years education, though, that brought the nomination. Throughout the valleys of south Wales, her nursery and reception units are admired as models of good practice.
Her classroom is a place of adventure as well as learning. Every space is a learning area, and all the materials and equipment are clearly labelled. There are areas for dramatic role-play - the home corner and a post office corner. There are book corners, construction areas, a computer corner, and areas for table toy and planned recording activities. In the wet area children have access to sand, water, clay, paint, and a woodwork bench. "Play space becomes a learning environment," she says Catherine Samuel. "No," she adds, "I'm certainly not planning my retirement."
David Baugh, who won the award for the most creative use of ICT in a primary school, is far too young to retire. Unlike Catherine, though, he came late to teaching. He started working life as an officer in the Gurkhas, then trained as an accountant and then had a spell as bursar in a north Wales public school. While he was there he visited a nearby primary school - Ysgol Frongoch in Denbigh. He liked it so much that he did an Open University PGCE, married a Welsh woman and then, in 1996, became a teacher there.
"Like most schools in Wales we were pretty poorly funded. So I'm afraid I started scrounging." He advertised on the web for help with machines and software. It transpired that an independent school and a major London company were both renewing systems. "Fill up your car," said one. "Fill up your minibus," said the other. And it was the same with software. "So I started thinking. How, with all this equipment, could I best turn children on?" The answer - easier said than done, he knows - was to encourage his fellow teachers to use ICT to support every aspect of the children's learning. Thanks to his colleagues ("They've been fantastic. I asked them this week, 'Who wants to learn how to make a website?' Everyone came"), children at Frongoch use computers as freely in music and drama, for instance, as they do in maths and science. A variety of cross-curriculum and multimedia "fun projects" have helped them forge links with children in schools around the world.
As David's citation said: "What makes him different are all the extra things he does that are far beyond the call of duty."
That's true, he knows, of many teachers. Take Eric Gates, who won the award for working with parents and the community in a primary school. He started teaching in secondary schools, but in 1993 he retrained as a primary teacher because he wanted the fun of teaching a wider range of subjects - "especially history. Wonderful." Then, three years ago, he was approached by his local education authority. Would he take over the Chantry primary school, in Gravesend, Kent, which was in special measures and had lost the backing of its parents?
"I walked round that school," he says, "and thought: I wouldn't like to be a pupil here. I read the Ofsted report. It said: 'These children never talk to adults'. So I took it on."
The first step was to go and talk to parents. Encouraged by what he heard, next he tackled the drabness of the school. With help from the charity Groundwork, an abandoned courtyard was transformed into a multicultural garden. "We had figs and passion-flowers - and a circular bench for circle time." And the garden grew. It expanded on to a derelict building site, where children now raise plants and produce and sell them to their parents. Part of it became a science garden, with a pond, a canal and a wind turbine to pump the water. Local firms and the local education-business partnership were generous with help.
Meanwhile, the mayor had invited the children to join Gravesend's "Future Town" project. Suddenly, the children who never talked to adults were working with them for their future. "Do you want to know what the best day of my life was?" asks Eric. "It was the day they said we were out of special measures.
"And I'm proud," he says. "I'm proud of what we achieved together. But most of all, I'm proud of these children. They're going to leave this school with a good education, proud of themselves, of what they have learned, proud of their school. They're going to carry that message with them."
As Sir John Harvey-Jones observes, it's a message the world outside hasn't yet heeded. "The long years of media denigration were bad for schools. Seeing teachers like Catherine, Eric, Jane and David on prime-time television is just the start of putting that right. As they say, they're not unique. So what we need now - teaching and Teaching Awards alike - is a lot more nominations."
Those closely involved with the awards are confident they'll be forthcoming. "Do you know what happens," one of the judges said, "when a staffroom hears that one of their teachers has won an award for the school? It's the awkward corner that leads the clapping. Quite literally, we've turned the corner."
LloydsTSB ended its sponsorship of the awards this year. A new presenting sponsor is expected to be announced at the end of the month. If you're interested in nominating a teacher for the 2001 awards, look at the website www.teachingawards.com where you can register for further information.
THE WINNERS AND FINALISTS
Winner: Denise Murray
Most creative use of ICT in a primary school
Winner: David Baugh
Sarah Le Masurier
Marcus Jon Ray
Most creative use of ICT in a secondary school
Winner: Angela Gaunt
Winner: Catherine Ann Samuel
Rose Marie Bradley
David Patrick Fox
The most outstanding new teacher in a primary school
Winner: Jenny O'Connor
The most outstanding new teacher in a secondary school
Winner: Trenica King
Working with parents and the community in a primary school
Winner: Eric Gates
Working with parents and the community in a secondary school
Winner: Lyn Reynolds
Leadership in a primary school
Winner: Mags Long
Leadership in a secondary school
Winner: Anthony Cooper
Special needs teaching in a primary school
Winner: Mary Campbell
Special needs teaching in a secondary school
Winner: Jane Dowell
Teacher of the year in a primary school
Winner: Alison Hatch
Teacher of the year in a secondary school
Winner: Catherine Roberts