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Why not ‘all must have prizes’?

28 June 2013

School awards-giving is unchristian and counter-productive, argues Hugh Rayment-Pickard

FANS of Father Ted will recall the episode when Fr Todd Unctuous, a priest who has spent his ministry seeking "trophies and prizes", tries to steal Fr Ted Crilly's newly won Golden Cleric Award. The underlying joke is the way in which Ted and his priestly colleagues are obsessed with secular notions of success. "You know, Dougal," Ted says, ignoring a parishioner's request for a visit, "it's not all about awards and glamour."

I was reflecting on this as we enter the season of school prize-giving ceremonies. Throughout the country, thousands of young people are being seated in school halls so that they can provide the applause for a chosen few as they take their moment of glory. Those with prizes can bask in the warm glow of success, while the rest are left with the gently corrosive sense of being not quite good enough.

Perhaps surprisingly, prize-giving events are not the preserve of independent schools: many maintained schools are now giving public awards to their élite students at various end-of-year ceremonies, as a means of signalling their commitment to excellence.

THE public celebration of a few star pupils is fundamentally out of kilter with the Christian faith, which sees ultimate value in every human being, and healthy spirituality in humility rather than pride. As St Paul explains in his description of the Christian community as a body (1 Corinthians 12), it is quite proper to honour the contribution that is made by individual members, but all should be treated as honourable. Paul is particularly at pains to say that no part of the body should be without honour.

Jesus was memorably approached by the mother of James and John with the request that he should introduce a special honours scheme for the disciples (Matthew 20). The suggestion was quickly rejected, of course: the idea that Jesus would have held an awards ceremony for his highest-achieving followers is ridiculous.

He showed little concern for worldly notions of talent. Judging by the description of the disciples in the Gospels, his recruitment policy was not to hire the brightest minds in Judaea. The Kingdom is not a meritocracy, but a community of grace, in which we are transformed by being called. It is God's love that makes something special of us.

Prizes also cultivate an individu-alistic and competitive attitude to success, which is at odds with the servant ethics of the Kingdom. While personal achievement is admirable, we need to focus our gifts on service to God and to others.

SOME traditionalists defend the school-prize culture because it prepares young people for the realities of adult life. They believe that children should learn early on that the adult world is a Darwinian survival game with winners and losers. We do young people no favours, they say, by telling them, like the Dodo from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, that "everyone has won and all must have prizes."

This is a strange way of thinking. Adult life is full of bad things - bullies, for example; but that hardly justifies bullying in schools. Schools have always been places where we try to provide young people with experiences of what is noblest and best, in the hope that these values will stay with them into adult life.

Quite apart from religious considerations, school prizes are pointless from a practical point of view: bright pupils will be rewarded in any case with good exam grades; so we hardly need to crown their success with prizes. All this does is breed smugness in the winners, and resentment in the rest.

Prizes are said to incentivise pupils, encouraging them to strive for excellence. In reality, though, the psychology works in the other direction: prizes demotivate because they imply that success is a finite resource, and that only a few people in life will ever get any of it. Prizes produce a "Why bother?" attitude that turns children off learning. If you want to incentivise students, it is obvious that you must show them that they can all succeed in their various ways.

The fundamental problem with prizes is not that they reward a few, but that they punish the majority with the message that they are second-rate, or even failures.

Above all, young people need to be loved, and schools should not underestimate the extent to which teachers act as parental figures whose perceived lack of appreciation can be damaging. Parents will be aware of the importance of cherishing all their children equally.

IT IS telling that the psychology that is claimed to work with children would cause havoc if it were applied in the workplace. Headteachers would never dream of holding a public ceremony in which a hand-picked group of teachers would receive special prizes in front of a whole-school audience of staff, pupils, and parents. It would produce catastrophic bad feeling.

Research into performance-related pay for teachers (for example, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has shown that it has no impact. Teachers say that they would rather have their value affirmed by being paid properly in the first place.

If we look at the banking sector, where performance pay is standard, we can see how bonuses have encouraged "gaming" behaviour in employees, who then play the system for all it is worth.

This is an area where the Church has an opportunity to act prophetically. Christian schools should lead the way in devising ceremonies that celebrate all pupils. Last summer, for example, I presented the certificates at a Year-11 leavers' ceremony for a large secondary school in Tower Hamlets. Every single young person came on stage to have his or her particular achievements celebrated. The atmosphere was astonishing, and it was moving to see and hear the positive affection by pupils for their teachers.

It may require a measure of loving insight to uncover the positive things in some children, but that is surely the Christian challenge: to love all others as God has loved us.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is author with Steven Shakespeare of The Inclusive God (Canterbury Press, 2006).

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