'Who the hell can we put forward?'

15th November 2002 at 00:00
This is a bumper year for teaching awards. No sooner have we finished congratulating the winners of the Excellence in Cities awards when the annual Teaching Awards ceremony is on the television. Amid the champagne-supping and backslapping we might wonder how the teaching profession got along without these public displays of celebration.

The Teaching Awards began life in 1998. At a time of low teacher morale and a recruitment crisis, the awards aimed to "publicly acknowledge and celebrate the crucial role that teachers play in the lives of our children and our futures as a nation". The awards have undoubtedly done wonders for the careers of individuals. But do they provide a boost for the profession?

The categories range from outstanding new teacher to lifetime achievement. What's missing is any sense of what it actually means to be an excellent teacher. There is, for example, no emphasis on academic subject knowledge or innovations in pedagogy. Winners seem surprised at being chosen, and identify their commitment and dedication to working with children as possible grounds for their success. I'd like to know the details of how their commitment and dedication are applied.

My own staffroom experience bears this out. Like most heads, ours wanted some extra cash for the school. Having a member of staff win a teaching award would bring in big bucks and good publicity. So the starting point isn't, "Mrs Chips is such an inspiring subject specialist and fine pedagogue"; it's "Here's the award, now who the hell can we put forward?"

When the profession can't define excellence, except in moralistic terms of dedication, it is hard to inspire others. Few will be motivated to teach because they are "hard-working".

This lack of definition is symptomatic of the lack of vision in education today. For most of the past 50 years, governments of all political persuasions have linked educational change with social change. Grammar schools were about educating an elite, and providing opportunities for social advancement to a small proportion of working-class kids. The comprehensive movement was to provide equal secondary opportunities for all. Flawed as both of these systems may have been, they at least provided a vision and a sense of purpose. Yesterday's educational vision has been replaced by today's bureaucratic target-setting and form-filling. Hardly inspiring stuff.

So, the celebs are dragged out for a night of glitz. A (very) few teachers feel their hard work has been recognised. But is anyone watching at home going to be persuaded that a lifetime of teaching is something to get excited about?

Joanna Williams is an English teacher in Kent, currently on (extended) maternity leave and working as a home tuition teacher

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