The conventional wisdom is that rewards and praise lose their appeal at the onset of adolescence or the transition from primary to secondary, whichever is later. Certificates, we are told, cut little ice with secondary pupils and receiving public praise from the teacher is anathema. Well, is it? Does it have to be so?
Pupils at Cathkin High in Cambuslang would say not. With Karen Gibson, their English teacher, they have devised a series of certificates in several aspects of language and social skills. All of this is in the classroom context which, to quote from the late, lamented 10-14 report, "crackles with subliminal signals".
On one wall is a display of beautifully produced booklets of short stories written by the pupils, alongside dramatically designed examples of their work stimulated by their reading of a play. At the front is the class library and at the back are the certificates. When I visited, there were eight certificates and another two in the pipeline.
They range from "Achievement in Reading" through to "Certificate in Spelling" to a "Helper" certificate. Most have been suggested by the pupils and designed on the computer by the teacher.
But a key feature of this approach to creating a climate of achievement is that the certificates are not conferred by the teacher. Each has its own targets. "This certifies that X has read at least one book from the following categories: poetry, short story, non-fiction, biography, novel" or "This certifies that X has made a special effort to read a staggering eight books in one month". For spelling, it involves pupils collecting 25 words they have difficulty with and then being able to spell them correctly. Pupils know exactly what they have to do to reach the targets.
The class told me the targets "help you work harder" and "they give you something to aim for". They allowed their parents (and, at least in one case, grandparents) a chance to share their achievements and one lad suggested to his teacher's surprise that in later life he would be able to look back on what he had done.
What is remarkable about this class is their "ordinariness". They are a mixed-ability class of normal 1990s teenagers in a very comprehensive school. One boy had already achieved four certificates, others had one or two and the small number who had not achieved one were, in their own words, "working towards a certificate". They said they felt "proud" when they achieved a certificate and assured me there was no "slagging".
So what can we conclude? It is perhaps not unconnected that Ms Gibson is also their register teacher and the bonding is firmer. The pupils were certain the approach could be extended to other classes.
But what about quality and rigour? The class were working on a review of a poem. Earlier, in groups, they had discussed the text and, jointly, made notes. As a class, they had agreed on 10 key elements to be included in their review and were individually sketching their first draft. The average length of these reviews was six to seven pages and the quality was certainly Standard grade or beyond. Once the draft was complete, at least one pupil would read and comment on another's work and the teacher would do likewise. Many of the elements of "differentiation", of flexible learning and teaching, and of "rigour" were present.
So there we have it. A committed and imaginative teacher working in a reflective English department. A group of ordinary pupils responding to a climate of achievement.
Brian Boyd is co-director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.