Praise the pupils and pass it on

8th March 2008 at 00:00

Gerald Haigh reports on how Dudley is marketing a Young Persons' Charter scheme to other authorities and schools In the average large school, two groups of pupils are rewarded by the system. The able, academically minded ones do well in their exams, and parade at speech day for their GCSE and A-level certificates. The less able pupils, looked after within the special needs policy, are usually showered with encouraging merit marks, headteachers' certificates and prizes for effort. In the middle, though, is a large cohort who receive very little by way of tangible reward.

Gay Stack, deputy head of the Grange School, a Dudley comprehensive where the borough's Young Persons' Charter is well established, suggests that "a tremendous number of middle-of-the-road pupils receive little reward from their schooling - perhaps just a pat on the back for effort now and again".

The ironic thing, she says, is that "the pupils who are most disadvantaged from the reward point of view are the ones who are often most rewarding to teach".

Joyce Hodgetts, a Dudley inspector, agrees. "All kids are good at something, but we're better at accrediting some things and not good at accrediting the rest." Schools, she says, often have merit and award systems, "but they're not progressive and not rigorous in terms of skills".

It was this line of thought that led to the setting up of the charter. Its structure is far reaching and tailored to suit pupils of all ages from four to 14. There have been false starts, and rethinks along the way, according to co-ordinator Mark Workman. "It is quite a complex thing, and it has taken schools a long time to refine it," he says.

Essentially, though, it consists of presenting pupils with tasks based around cross-curricular themes such as citizenship, health, environment, careers - and also around expressive arts. Core skills are identified for each task. The aim, explains Workman, "is to set yourself realistic targets - small achievable steps".

Thus, a typical key stage 1 task, presented on an A4 printed proforma, defines its purpose as "to be aware that exercise is important for a healthy lifestyle". The task is "to devise a routineexercise suitable for a `warm up' activity". The core skills are communication, problem-solving and working with others, and criteria for success are clearly identified - one is "Know why a `warm up' activity is necessary".

A bank of tasks is supplied for each key stage. At key stage 2, tasks become more demanding and each pupil is asked to complete four. At key stage 3, they complete five tasks. Pupils who perform beyond the basic level can build up credits and receive a merit or distinction. In many cases, these credits will be awarded for activities in the community outside school, or for personal achievement. Thus a pupil can be credited for passing a piano exam outside school, or for looking after a visitor, or for responding to a family crisis. "If they want recognition they can get it," says Workman.

The fact that the scheme is authority-wide (3,000 pupils are currently working on it) gives it strong credibility, and means, for example, that you will see a notice in the local leisure centre reminding pupils to have their cards signed. There are, of course, lots of badges and certificates designed for each appropriate age group.

Each school works the scheme in its own way - within lessons, as special "Charter work" or as a club activity. In secondary schools, the work is often covered under the umbrella of personal and social education.

Participating schools are enthusiastic. At Bromley Primary I watched pupils performing routines based on The Circus, all of which had been done as part of their Charter work. They had designed and made their costumes, planned their performances and learned the routines, thus covering many of the core skills. It was obviously good fun for everyone. In fact, as head Barbara Albert told me, enjoyment was part of the attraction of the scheme. "A lot of enjoyment has gone out of education over the past few years, and suddenly this is fun again." The work has significantly increased levels of motivation among her pupils. "We have wonderful attendance figures and the children love to come to school, " she says.

Always, with any positive reward system, there are staffroom doubts to be overcome. Many teachers feel that there is something morally not quite right in offering rewards to pupils who are, after all, "just doing what we expect". The corollary of this, though, is that many pupils will be virtually ignored unless they have to be admonished.

Stack admits that she and the staff were sceptical at first. "But now it's enabled us to take on board a new perception about the need to reward pupils overtly, even though we've always given them praise and good marks." She warns, though, that it is not something that you can just tack on without preparation: "It's got to be part of the philosophy that's there already."

The Charter scheme - manuals, stationery and training - is being marketed by Dudley. It is likely to be of most benefit where a whole authority takes it on, and already the Dudley team is talking to people around the country. But individual schools will undoubtedly find ways of using it too.

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