6th June 2003 at 01:00
In my last school, the older pupils got special certificates, which were the same as merit certificates but without the smiley faces

What motivates people to achieve? The quest for personal satisfaction and fulfilment? The desire to be publicly recognised? Financial or material reward? Probably a bit of all three, with lots of other factors thrown in.

We've been discussing the issue of rewards in our year team meetings recently. What makes your average 14-year-old do what you want them to do when what they really want is to spend all day at the shops or eating fish and chips in front of a Justin Timberlake video? That's not to insult our year group, you understand. Given the choice, I'd probably take Justin Timberlake and a soggy bag of chips over teaching double media on a Friday afternoon.

But let's be honest; selling the average concept of education to a large group of teens can be trying, if not impossible. It doesn't have that much to recommend it. You spend all day shuffling round crowded corridors, being told what to do by teachers who think their subject is the most important on the curriculum, and you spend most of the evening trying to remember what they set you for homework. Someone once told me that if you shadowed your average secondary pupil around school for a day, you'd be amazed at the complexities and inconsistencies of the demands put upon them. No wonder they might occasionally feel the need to act like monsters.

So how do you make it all worthwhile? The little ones go mad for merits. It never fails to amaze me how offering three merits for a job well done can make them burst with pride. I've thought of offering 20 merits for a seriously good effort, but I don't think they'd be able to stand the excitement. And I might have some cleaning up to do. In my last school, the older ones got special certificates which were the same as the merit certificates but without the smiley faces and clip art. They'd accept them during assemblies with an air of nonchalance, but you could tell they were chuffed once they were away from the public glare of the main hall.

I always feel uneasy about bribing a Year 7 class with merits, or goading a Year 11 student with the threat of a commendation being taken away. Isn't this supposed to be about education for the joy of it and learning for learning's sake? Is there something so flawed with my lessons that they can't just enjoy doing the work for the sheer hell of it?

My latest educational reading discusses the What's In It For Me factor.

Apparently, you've got to provide a cast iron reason for learning behind each of your lessons. It's not enough to say, "We're doing this because the key stage 3 framework says we have to". I wonder if anyone at the DfES realises this. I tried it with my Year 7s. We spent half the lesson on the aims and objectives. I tried to make it relevant, exciting, fun. "So what's in this for you?" I asked, exhausted at the end of the lesson. "Merits!"

they replied as one. Fine. So much for intrinsic rewards and satisfaction.

I suppose as a teacher I'm not used to the idea of people doing something for an obvious reward. Why did I go into education?

So I'm happy to stick with the materialistic model. Education for the sake of repeated public recognition and a tenner from your parents once you've got a certificate for 20 merits. It can have some interesting applications.

I've started offering my husband merits for taking out the rubbish. It's working a treat. Now he wants a merit chart on the kitchen wall.

Gemma Warren is an assistant special needs co-ordinator at a London secondary school. Email:

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