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Beware the glittering prizes

"Our beginnings never know our ends," said T S Eliot. Well, he was wrong about that. Time to open the staffroom sweepstake now on just who will be next year's dux medallist, school sports captain, etc. It goes without saying that the field will be narrow and the favourites hot. The traditional end-of-year prizegiving is staging a comeback. The only question is - why?

Answers vary. "Well," some tell me, "it's surely right that those who do best throughout the year should have their efforts rewarded."

But rewards, like punishments, are most effective when they are handed out on the spot in direct response to the praiseworthy or reprehensible deed. My heart sang when I heard of the teacher at my son's primary school who was sending home letters to parents (and posting copies in the classroom) telling them if their child had done particularly well that day or week. The letters didn't just relate to academic performance, though that was included. They also covered such things as "Jane was particularly helpful to everyone in class today." Similar letters went home if the child had transgressed in some way.

Not only did this reinforce the good behaviour and shame the perpetrator of the bad, but it really did encourage the others for whom the idea of "keeping on trying" in the hope of getting a prize at the end of the year would have been totally ridiculous.

Perhaps it's the distinction between a reward and an award. An award is so much more remote and implies overall worthiness. I think of my friend's son who, at the end of last year, was confused to discover that the boy receiving the top "award" in his class was the self-same boy who had bullied him for a short time earlier that year.

Award ceremonies also call to mind the worst thing any teacher ever said to me on parents' night. My daughter, she told me, was among the "cream" of the class. (I couldn't help wondering what that made the poorest - sour milk perhaps?) Of course the remark was intended as a compliment but to whom - to me, my daughter or to the teacher herself who, by implication, was thus fit to teach "the cream"? We all know what happens to cream - it gets skimmed off - and that's precisely what happens. What do such ceremonies say about the ethos of a school? To me, they say, "all children in this school are equal: it's just that some are more equal than others".

So please, let's start giving children their just rewards now, at the start of the school year, and let's continue to do so on an on-going basis rather than settling for some notionally prestigious but ultimately empty and meaningless awards' ceremony at the year's end.

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