Why so afraid to cheer?;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Lord Puttnam's teaching Oscars aren't such a bad way to celebrate success in the classroom, says John MacBeath

OSCARS for teachers? Are we Scots ready for such an affront to our Calvinist culture and self-

denying ethic? We have always opted for the celebration of collectivity in preference to individual glory and, as a matter of principle, are loath to follow where England has led. But should we, on this occasion, think again?

When David Puttnam floated the idea of teacher Oscars at the initial meeting of the Government's task force on standards, it was met with silent scepticism by academics and with cautious reserve by the teachers and local authority representatives present.

A Puttnam too far, too Hollywood, too much teaching-as-

performing art. Two years on all of us have had to eat our unspoken words.

The first Teaching Awards ceremony, held in London's Alexandra Palace in July, was an unqualified triumph, a grandiose venue for a grand occasion. It was televised live (England only) and compered (irreverently) by Stephen Fry and Gaby Roslin.

Awards were presented by conspicuous achievers and media glitterati - Ralph Fiennes, Sir John Harvey Jones, Tessa Sanderson, Teddy Sheringham, Helen Mirren, Maureen Lipman, Jon Snow.

Even the Prime Minister got into the act. Prerecorded on video he reprised Eamonn Andrews, looking the part, hamming it up, and saying conspiratorially to camera in stage whisper: "And here we are in the school. She is behind this door and doesn't know what is about to happen." There is a career in waiting if prime ministering ever turns out to have been a mistake.

My own defences were breached at the pre-awards reception by that curmudgeonly scourge of governments past, Fred Jarvis. He was in exuberant mode as if the event were his own personal lifetime achievement award. His union, the National Union of Teachers, had not only endorsed the event but participated in judging the regional heats. In fact the awards were not only supported by all teacher and headteacher unions but by all political parties - a significant achievement.

My prejudices were also confounded by the quality of the winners. Each award was preceded by a three-minute video clip showing the school and classroom in action. The stories they told were, in the terminology of the American writer Neil Postman, "thick" rather than "thin". There was not a hint in any of them of narrow Gradgrind attainment or the pursuit of joyless targets.

There was the teacher who taught information and communications technology as a constant adventure of discovery in a classroom transformed into an Indiana Jones Temple of Doom. There was a teacher who had turned a football team from a collection of aggressive competitors into a squad of generous winners and gracious losers. Another teacher had taken her classroom into the community and extended the concept of the learning school.

This was a celebration of good teaching as we could all recognise it without the aid of performance indicators or competency criteria. Even the most sceptical among us could not help being seduced by the occasion and the absence of Oscars-induced Paltrowesque self-indulgence.

Each winner gave credit to the work of colleagues and the school and accepted the pound;23,000 cheque not as a personal gift but on behalf of the school. Every recipient said that given another life they would still go into teaching and pronounced it the most satisfying job in the world.

And what of Scotland? David Puttnam is keen to extend the ceremony to these parts but would it need a tartan trim to make it palatable here? Does the Scottish culture require a less individualistic treatment?

We are alive to the inherent danger of celebrating the individual, because to do so is to separate the "achiever" from the context in which that achievement occurs.

Effective performance is as often as not embedded in strong relationships, good teamwork and a climate of support. The school itself as an organism may be the skills creator and the knowledge carrier. Effective and improving schools, as we know from research, are learning communities in which expertise lies between individuals and within creative dynamic partnerships.

These are issues we will have to give thought to in Scotland. We may wish to extend and enrich the notion of teaching awards to encompass teams, whole schools, recognition for curricular achievements, awards for innovation in technology, in self-evaluation, community projects, and school boards' initiatives, for example.

We may wish the awards to celebrate achievement of key policy initiatives at national, local authority and school levels.

Whatever form any such celebration may take it should build on what Scotland has already been doing to celebrate good practice in schools - "Making it Happen", ethos awards, and school-led national conferences.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from "down south" is the value of the outside perspective, the Puttnam syndrome, which challenges some of our most cherished prejudices and asks us to think again.

John MacBeath is director of Quality in Education at Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University.

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