They all deserve some rewards

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Too few secondary schools have really simple, effective and immediate rewards for their pupils. Having taught in seven different secondary comprehensives, I know that many schools have a delayed reward system but it is mainly the most motivated students who benefit from these systems.

School rewards are even older than the state education system in this country. Open the pages of Harry Potter and you can see the traditional house points system at work. A rewards system does help students to identify with their school but for working-class pupils we also need to understand the importance of immediate gratification and reward.

Some psychologists and secondary teachers dismiss rewards because they say that learning itself should be an intrinsic reward and that pupils need to learn self-discipline. Yes, of course parents should teach children the internal motivation to succeed, but in many urban comprehensives some children have not acquired this.

If we look closely at middle-class families there is often a tradition of rewarding children for doing well at school and in extra-curricular activities such as dance, music, sport. Prize days were a central feature of grammar and public schools.

Why should rewards be dismissed for the children who most need them? Children who are too often told off, verbally abused or beaten because they do wrong, need the counter-culture for what they do right. This can introduce a learning culture into classrooms that can seem to be against learning.

As a senior teacher I have been able to create a truly immediate and simple rewards system. If a pupil is on task in a lesson in my school they get a merit stamp on a card. A card full of merits leads to a certificate.

Several cards lead to a voucher. The child with the most merits in each year group gets a bronze, silver or gold award.

On-task behaviour means that more learning takes place and individual pupils gain a sense of achievement. The system is a vital weapon in the teacher's armoury with pupils who need to be taught to behave well.

This system is different because using a stamp means that every child in the room can get a reward. Every pupil can experience some kind of success, regardless of ability. The teacher is looking for what they do right to encourage others to follow.

This is a pioneering system and it is popular with pupils. More schools should try it.

Valerie Coultas is an assistant head in a London boys' school

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