Schools have always had Speech Days or Prize Days at the end of the year, at which a lucky few are given prizes. But why? Is it simply a Victorian tradition continued unthinkingly into the present age.
What is the educational reason for giving out prizes? The initial answer is that it makes those who have been successful into role models. The procession of pupils across a stage to receive their awards holds them up as examples the school wishes other pupils to follow. It is designed to show those who haven’t won prizes the qualities, attributes and outcomes which the school believes all pupils should emulate. It’s an exercise in lauding what the school values to seek to get the community values. It’s a secular ritual or liturgy which takes what we know in our thinking brain, and embeds it in that powerful, more primitive part of our brain that deals with impressions and emotions. We begin to make school success emotionally equivalent to feelings of being valued, or celebration. Simon Sinek has written about the ‘happy hormones’ that are released by such public and tangible demonstrations of praise.
At the same time, however, the physical prize, has a special significance. Many prizewinners these days win a token, which they are able to change into a book or a gift. I am told that it’s common practice for teenagers to ‘sell’ these to their parents for cash, which can be spent more widely. Whilst understandable, I think this is a shame. The purpose of the physical prize is to remind the prizewinner of the achievements. As it sits on the bedroom shelves (or floor!) it acts as an ongoing reminder of the value of industry and perseverance through the next winter of intellectual training. The power of physical reminders of success is a sort of scholastic iconography - and it works, but not when the prizewinner turns their book token into a takeaway pizza. So here’s my campaign for young people to turn this summer’s prizes into real, actual physical, paper and card books. Not because I am a Luddite, but because the enduring visual symbol of success is, I believe, has a small, but real, value in promoting the prizewinning dispositions in the future.