Handed out in assembly or from the headteacher's office, these rewards are often mentioned in National Records of Achievement, documents covering a pupil's academic and personal attainments which are intended for future employers or higher education institutions.
But why should schools issue rewards for civilised behaviour? Why should pupils receive certificates and commendations for what might be considered basic requirements? Praising pupils in a uniform, codified way is now seen as a good thing, largely because concentrating on their good points has proved more effective in modifying disruptive behaviour than constantly pointing out the bad.
Discipline in schools is under intense scrutiny with the publication of truancy league tables, growing numbers of pupil exclusions, and a nation still shuddering in the aftermath of the James Bulger murder trial. and ways of improving pupils' behaviour in schools are receiving increased attention.
But if merit is not rewarded in a consistent and rigorous manner, or if awards are used to bribe disruptive pupils, there is a danger that the system will be devalued.
In the Seventies, praising pupils' work and behaviour, along with showing good work to headteachers and rewarding pupils with medals and prizes at speech days, fell out of favour, These methods were thought ineffectual in changing the behaviour of sophisticated teenagers.
But the 1989 Elton report, Discipline in Schools, encouraged a return to a more overt system of praising pupils and stimulated the development of the many rewards systems now in place.
This month's report by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), Achieving Good Behaviour in Schools, echoes the Elton findings and pin-points minor, unmanaged disruption as the major disciplinary problem facing schools because of its cumulative effect on their running, ethos, standards and reputation. But the Ofsted report also emphasises the importance of consistency in reward systems and the proper balancing of rewards with sanctions.
Richard Brent, headteacher of Wilmslow High School in Cheshire, and an Ofsted inspector, believes that incorrectly implemented merit award systems could lead to greater disaffection among pupils and further breakdown in discipline. In some schools, he says, girls receive many more gold awards than boys - mainly for being quiet and getting on with their work.
'There is a lot of evidence to show that teachers reward conformist behaviour. It is known that boys initiate four times as many questions as girls, boys tend to sprawl and physically dominate a room, and this can be intimidating. But teachers must be aware of these things. They must be clear as to what they are rewarding and why they are issuing sanctions,' he says. 'I rewarded a boy recently for contesting my authority on a matter of discipline because he proved that I had been in error. I felt that was proper and correct.'
The Ofsted report stresses that rewards must be for genuine achievement, otherwise the system becomes devalued. Mr Brent agrees: 'Staff need to do twice as much praising as complaining . . . But we must beware of teachers who are promiscuous with merits, who give them out at the drop of a hat to keep kids quiet.'
But if reward systems are well thought out and applied, they can, according to Ofsted, 'create a climate in which self-esteem is nurtured and misbehaviour becomes a markedly less attractive way of obtaining attention'.
One system gaining currency in some schools is 'assertive discipline' - an American theory based on a rigid set of rules, penalties and rewards. A simple set of six rules is displayed in every classroom, along with a list of rewards for keeping them and the consequences of breaking them. The rules are that pupils must: arrive on time to lessons and enter the classroom quietly; remain in their seats until asked to move; come to lessons properly equipped; listen to and follow instructions the first time they are given; raise their hands before answering or speaking; treat others, their work and equipment with respect.
Pupils who behave appropriately are rewarded at the end of the lesson. Breaking the rules leads to a series of sanctions, from the pupil's name being written on the board for a first infringement, through to detention, removal from the classroom, parents being informed, and isolation from the timetable, peers and friends.
Bebington High School, a 1,000-strong secondary modern in the Wirral, Merseyside, was one of the first to introduce this system. More than a year later, Rob Burns, the headteacher, says the scheme has transformed the ethos of the school and has had clear consequences for examination results.
The school, which has the largest number of pupils on 'statements' (pupils with special requirements, inluding those with learning difficulties and behavioural problems) in the local authority area, has improved its GCSE grades in one year from 11 per cent achieving five A-to-C grades to 23 per cent.
Mr Burns says: 'With A-levels we received more grade As than any other grade. This school has never had results like that. But pupils' self-esteem is now very high. They know what is expected of them.' Bebington has received hundreds of inquiries from schools about the system, and now conducts seminars and in-service training for other teachers.
Raincliffe School, Scarborough, an 11-16 comprehensive of 700 pupils, is one of the schools to adopt the Bebington system, with some modifications. Michael Goode, the headteacher, says that as well as the six rules displayed in every room, teachers also set targets for pupils at the beginning of every lesson.
'These are achievable work-related targets and pupils receive rewards if they meet them, or merit certificates if they exceed them. If they do not meet them, sanctions are applied. All of this is recorded. The system is fair and pupils know exactly why they are being rewarded or punished.'
Previously, says Mr Goode, pupils had been rewarded with house points given out on slips of paper. 'But teachers had no clear idea as to what they should be rewarding, and pupils' pockets were full of bits of paper that had no clear value.'
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