We can never make everyone a winner

8th July 2005 at 01:00
A misguided desire for equality is in danger of devaluing school prize-giving, says Michael Russell

In the days when I was shadow Minister for Education, I used to be asked to present school prizes. There is a story by P G Wodehouse about the roue Bertie Wooster finding himself (by a series of accidents) in that situation at a posh establishment for girls, and being unable to think of anything to say that would not scandalise the teachers.

In reality, the problem to be overcome is not that of alienating the staff (who usually expect little from any such guest) but to avoid boring the pupils. I have grey memories of prize-giving speeches I heard when at school, and the warning that such recollections impart has always stayed in my mind. Prize-givings are part of the end-of-summer-term ritual. But having more than once handed over something to every pupil present - which meant virtually every pupil in the school - I have some sympathy for the position of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, which, in its recent submission to the Scottish Parliament's education committee inquiry on motivation, describes this system as "meritocracy gone mad".

During the Seventies and Eighties, the fashionable tide of egalitarianism led some schools to abandon such events altogether. An alternative approach, however, found more favour, as indeed was right - it is always better to level up than level down. Consequently, the slim volumes with inscribed book plates presented for academic achievement, and the cups for sporting prowess, were replaced or supplemented by other rewards. These noted not just the hoary old chestnut of "perfect attendance" but also individual effort and the climbing of personal summits measured against the climber, not the overall landscape.

Yet that, too, has got out of hand in some places, with not only, as the SSTA puts it, "third prize for German" being part of the endless list but also prizes for just turning up from time to time, or for containing the impulse to deck a fellow pupil.

As ever, the question is where one draws the line. If, as Gilbert observed, and Sullivan set to music, everyone is somebody, then no one is anybody.

Recognition of merit when spread too thinly is rendered worthless and indeed meaningless. This does not necessarily mean that excellence goes completely out of the window, but it does redefine what excellence means, particularly among one's peers.

Noting progress and marking it against the passage of time is a human trait, which surfaces in things as different as New Year resolutions and Oscar ceremonies. But not only actors and film makers do it - though they do it big-style and with huge enthusiasm, as well as with huge amounts of back-biting, as I found in one of my previous jobs, which involved organising an annual awards ceremony for television professionals.

The number of people who tried to nobble the supposedly impartial jury was amazing, as were the tantrums thrown by those who didn't get anything. They usually went off in a huff for years, though the worst people to deal with were those principled and dismissive individuals who claimed that awards meant nothing to them, until they either won (at which stage they never stopped talking about it) or they lost (when they howled the house down and bad-mouthed everyone, especially those who had beaten them).

Of course, politicians, journalists and writers are as guilty as anyone else of not just liking the approbation which comes from winning things but actively seeking it. Few if any school prize-givings are as elaborate as the annual bashes to award the various "Politician of the Year" awards north and south of the border, nor as riotous and sometimes as degenerate as the range of newspaper shindigs.

The passion for "ceremonies" has spread everywhere else too, with teachers, salespeople, and even sanitary inspectors being "honoured" and often in ways that make all the participants cringe.

Keeping a sense of proportion is all. Virtue is not only its own reward, it is also notoriously difficult to appreciate and commend in ways that are not exclusive or patronising. The real task is to celebrate the exceptional while still encouraging those who have not yet, or may never, come up to that mark. Maybe the two purposes cannot be happily conjoined or perhaps, if they are, then they need to be put into careful balance and kept there: limiting, for example, the number of awards, making them transparent in criteria and worth having only because of their rarity. Limiting awards does, in any case, serve other useful purposes, not least that of brevity.

Once, I was asked to present the prizes at a senior pupils' event, which seemed to last forever. I only dimly noticed a photographer stepping up each time a recipient came forward, but the following week the local paper published a picture of every handover - some 40 or so. But so full was the page that it failed to carry any details of who I was and why I had been asked to be there. It was the cult of the personality gone mad - a huge spread of someone unnamed grinning inanely at lots of different pupils in school uniform.

We would be lessened if there were no high points of appreciation in our lives which we could recall and which, in time, we could see from every perspective. Nor is there anything wrong in being ambitious and exhorting others to be so, too. Yet the real measure of success is not in being told that one is successful, it is in doing things that make a difference for others.

So as term has ended, in schools and in our Parliament, a period of collective community assessment of what has been achieved in the last year would be no bad thing. Those in the hard jobs in education might then get the prizes they deserve: politicians, actors, journalists and the rest would probably miss out.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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