Are prizes worth fighting for?

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The Independent Online
A few years ago there was a common method of inducting freshly recruited Local Education Authority officers. It introduced them to local schools, and at the same time tested their dedication. New arrivals were sent on a round of school speech days. If they survived the experience, they were sufficiently dedicated.

Speech days declined during the Seventies and Eighties. This was partly the result of secondary schools being reorganised as comprehensives. A ceremonial prize-giving was seen as a relic of the old grammar schools, when academic and sporting successes were celebrated and other achievements were ignored.

There was a poignant moment in the television production of Barry Hines's Speech Day, when a teacher asked the non-examination class to set out the hall with chairs. "Why do we have to do it?" was their protest. The injustice seemed to be that 5A got prizes, while 5D had to set out and clear away chairs in the assembly hall. In another scene, the 5D anarchists invented a series of hilarious and obscene fictitious prizes.

As a child I loved speech days. In those days being called a "swot" was not the instant social death for adolescent boys that being labelled a "boff" is nowadays. Not only did I win prizes, but I also declaimed some piece of deathless verse in French or German, and sang in the choir.

That sort of event was fine for participants. Those who won a prize or had something to do felt engaged, but it was a huge yawn for the many pupils who had to sit through it passively. There was nothing to look forward to, other than slipping in the rude version of the school song at the end.

In the last few years many schools have reintroduced some kind of evening for pupils and parents, often in a different form. The event may wax and wane in popularity, but the arguments remain the same.

Should a school award prizes to the "best" pupils in the presence of their parents and community, or is it merely an anachronism, nostalgia for a bygone elitist society? It may be fine for the winners, but are the rest seen as the losers? Is academic success to be the main focus? What sort of messages does such a public event give to pupils, parents and the community?

I go to a number of evenings in both primary and secondary schools, where I am asked to give out awards. Nowadays the word "celebration" is more likely to be used than the term "speech day". Many schools have put on special ceremonies to counter the incessant mantra of the mass media about education and its real or imagined failures. The desire to celebrate and publicise, rather than denigrate, has been a strong driving-force.

The actual event can take many forms. Schools increasingly link it to other kinds of communication. The choir or orchestra performing at half- time was a feature of many traditional speech days, but I have been to schools where classrooms were thrown open to parents and members of the community during the day and early evening, and the awards part was the final act in a full day of celebration.

Most forms nowadays take a much wider view of "achievement" than used to be the case. In secondary schools, for example, I often present GCSE certificates to more than 90 per cent of the exam cohort. Students come up in alphabetical order, some with 10 grade As, others with a couple of low grades. Barely 20 per cent of their forebears' generation ever got what my grandma used to call a "sustificate".

If there are actual "prizes", they often cover a bigger range of academic, vocational, personal and sporting achievements than formerly - gymnastics certificates, good citizenship awards, recognition for those who have taken part in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme or done the 10 Tors, alongside information technology proficiency, craftsmanship, sporting and academic success.

There are, of course, pitfalls. One poor lad, at a primary school celebration, forgot his single line and ran off the stage in tears. However much the rest of his class and teachers tried to reassure him, he seemed inconsolable. He saw it as humiliation, not a shared joke.

Another hazard is the quality of a school orchestra. Try as one might to smile benignly, there are some sounds that tear the soul. Even the most supportive and stoical adults can hardly hold back a grimace at the sound of beginner violinists scraping out-of-tune notes. That said, I have heard some astonishingly good music, including a scintillating performance by primary school children in what is supposed to be a "deprived" area.

Then there are the "good citizen" prizes, fair enough if handled properly, but potentially disastrous. At one ceremony I went to, the deputy head's introduction went along the lines of: "And next we have Darren. Now Darren isn't the brightest lad in the class, but he always has that lovely smile." This toe-curling "eulogy" made it clear that these were, in reality, "thick- as-a-brick-but-compliant" awards.

One potential hazard at speech days is the performance of the chairman of governors. Mostly this is a model of rectitude, and many manage to craft their words skilfully. Except, that is, for the one who introduced me to the parents by saying, "The teachers tell me that Professor Wragg is very well-known, but I've never heard of him myself."

My all-time favourite speech day, however, was the one at which I was introduced by the chairman of governors in the most memorable fashion. "And now for our distinguished speaker," he began. I preened myself, hoping for a few morale-boosting phrases such as "international expert", "salt of the earth", "fine figure of a man".

"We are absolutely delighted that Professor Wragg has been able to come along to our speech day," he went on. Preen preen, glow glow. "Especially as the governors were so disappointed when Sir John Harvey Jones couldn't come"