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
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
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
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
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
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,