School awards evenings should be a win-win for all
There are a number of troubling aspects to these events, but we can harness their many positives
It’s that time of the year again. Awards season. I have about half-a-dozen awards evenings to speak at this year and the question has been troubling me. Should schools give awards?
To be sure, prizegiving night is a big deal for schools and the children, not to mention the parents. A lot of time, energy and money goes into making the evening special. For once, parents come to school not to discuss a disappointing report card, behavioural problems, or new policies from the department. This is a joyous evening where everyone appears positive and indulges in good food afterwards. Or is it?
As a veteran of awards evenings, I’m not so sure. Think of the intense competition for the mathematics prize or the “best in the grade” award. Somebody’s heart will be broken. Spare a thought for the child who has to come, with their parents, all dressed up in school uniform, and whose role is simply to observe and applaud the winners as they cross the stage smiling and hugging one or more trophies. Then there’s always that girl who wins all the trophies – sports, academics, culture and even good manners – and struggles off stage and off balance with the accumulated awards. Everybody claps.
There is also a more troubling aspect to awards in our former white schools. For a long time most, if not all of the awards went to white children. Of course this has nothing to do with being white and everything to do with relative privilege. At the extremes, the white child comes from a privileged home with books and wifi connections while the black child often comes from a township where unemployed parents can barely afford the long taxi ride to school. Make no mistake that in the minds of some in the audience, these patterns of award allocations reinforce racial stereotypes about who can and cannot achieve at the top of their game. Fortunately, as schools integrate – some more than others – the award winners are no longer so easily predictable by race or ethnicity. Talent is normally distributed.
Yet to do away with awards carries other dangers. Our school system is already mediocre to the bone. Every other policy announcement by the government tends to lower the bar for performance to as low as 30% pass marks. The post-apartheid school system is geared towards low expectations from majority enrolments in mathematical literacy to a compromised system of moderation. Awards do the opposite. They set the bar high and recognise achievement. A school’s awards evening therefore carries a powerful, even counter-cultural message: we value and reward excellence.
So how can a school balance the negatives and positives of awards functions? I have seven suggestions. Ensure that every primary school child gets an award for something. These children are far too young to be exposed to the harshness of exclusion. As the world’s most famous education change leader, Michael Fullan, told me last week: “I have not yet met a child young enough who did not want to do something to help humanity.” Find that something;
Broaden the range of awards so that the system recognises the many ways in which young people can be good. The mathematics award should be balanced out with the arts and culture award; the track and field award with the good service award; the highest mark for science with the most improved mark in science;
Eliminate meaningless awards such as “never missed a day in school”. First of all, that is not an award, it is a comment on either the kid’s immune system or the parent’s recklessness – sending a sick child to school somewhere between grades 1 and 12;
Reward non-compliance in an obedience-driven culture. I have offered more than one school a proposal for an award for out-of-the-box thinking; for a child who challenges convention and follows her own path;
Recognise in the awards system the attributes that the modern workplace values, such as teamwork or independent thinking or adaptability when faced with complex situations;
Draw attention in the awards system to the future of work as represented in technological innovation. For example, reward the inventive pupil who found a way to create his own app or the critical pupil who uses digital technologies to create protest art. It would help, of course, if the school created conditions for these habits to emerge, such as installing a small digital laboratory and hiring young teachers with these aptitudes;
Encourage at every awards ceremony those who have not yet achieved. “Not all kittens open their eyes on the same day,” an old woman once encouraged me. In short, reward the right things.