'Air miles' scheme sees pupils rock

28th November 2008 at 00:00
Points mean prizes in schools that are trialling a new electronic rewards card system

Burak's family were surprised when the 13-year-old brought home an electric Stratocaster guitar. His mother faces an even bigger surprise next week.

"I'm buying her a pair of earrings," Burak explains. "I'm going to leave the box out for her at home, so she finds it, with a note in Turkish telling her they're a gift from me."

Burak's mother understands very little English, so, luckily, will not read about the surprise here.

But she does know about the reward system that allows Burak and the other 800 pupils at the Westminster Academy in London to buy themselves and their friends gifts.

The school was one of the first to trial Vivo Miles, a scheme being offered to schools across England from this week.

Teachers award points for good work or excellent behaviour, which pupils can then exchange for prizes.

Each pupil gets a private online account where they can check how many Vivos (pronounced Vee-vos) they have received and which teachers awarded them.

They also receive a credit card-style card, with their name embossed, which they can use to access their accounts at special kiosks.

Burak receives points every week for helping a teacher keep the register at an after-school rowing machine club. He also gets a handful regularly for his work in class and received 50 for spending a Saturday showing visitors around the school's award-winning building.

Rod Boswell, a house principal at Westminster Academy, helped to develop Vivo Miles, a scheme described on its website as "designed by schools for schools".

He had previously got pupils on the school's Young Enterprise scheme to play an online fantasy share-trading game. Through that he met Sam Rickett, the website's inventor, who was interested in providing pupils with a loyalty scheme similar to Virgin airlines' frequent flyers club.

Westminster Academy began trialling Vivo in 2007, using it to replace a more cumbersome paper-based scheme whereby pupils collected stickers to gain prizes.

Mr Boswell said: "Schools have always had awards. Even when I was at school in South Wales we would get trophies, book tokens and those footballs that you have to inflate with a bicycle pump." He believes that a key benefit of Vivo is that it teaches pupils to use a form of electronic banking, a skill that will help them to "achieve economic wellbeing." Future versions will allow pupils to accumulate interest.

The project has attracted negative publicity. Tabloid reports last month said it provided "Plasma TVs and iPods for truants".

But truants would have difficulty gaining enough for a television. Indeed, even the most diligent students might find it hard to reach the 6,000 points required, though pupils can club points together - as the sixth formers at Westminster Academy did to buy themselves a communal pool table.

However, schools can indeed use it to reward pupils for anything they like, including attendance.

And some of the six schools now using Vivo, including the Barnfield South Academy in Luton, Bedfordshire, allow teachers to punish pupils by removing points from their card. But Westminster Academy has chosen not to use it as a sanction, focussing instead on rewarding pupils regularly for academic achievements in class.

One English teacher told colleagues she had not been able to get a shy class to read out loud, but suddenly had plentiful volunteers when she offered Vivos.

Some teachers might be concerned that the scheme promotes materialism. But pupils will soon be able to use it to make donations to charity.

And at the Westminster Academy - where a high proportion of pupils are from disadvantaged families - the most popular prizes are musical instruments, which the school buys at a discount.

Nabid, aged 15, one of the school's top-performing pupils, gained between 700 and a thousand Vivos last year, and recently purchased a BMX.

But before that he bought a Stratocaster guitar and a set of keyboards, which allowed him to set up a rock band. His success with the scheme has inspired a classmate to work so he can get a bass guitar.

Vivo charges schools between Pounds 2 to Pounds 10 per pupil annually to take part in the scheme.

How much of their budgets schools want to spend on prizes is up to them. Westminster Academy says the amount would depend on pupils' performance, although other schools are reported to have spent up to Pounds 28,000.

George Grima, Vivo's chief executive, rejected suggestions that the scheme made pupils more materialistic. "It shows a lack of faith in human nature - and teenagers - to assume that is what will happen," he said. "Like currency, it can be used for good purposes such as making charity donations."

And buying parents earrings .


What Vivos can buy

V40 - Earrings

V60 - Set of tennis balls

V90 - Memory stick, 1 gigabyte

V100 - Badminton racket

V150 - Kite

V400 - Xbox computer game

V400 - Electric guitar

V500 - BMX bike

V500 - iPod mini

V700 - Digital camera

V800 - DVD recorder

V1,000 - Palm Tungsten PDA

V3,000 - PlayStation 3 console

V3,400 - Sony laptop

V6,000 - LCD TV

A Vivo Mile is worth 10p. These are some examples from Westminster Academy. The price and range of items varies between schools, which can select what will be available to pupils from catalogues including Argos and New Look.

Photograph: Claire Lim.

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