In normal times we would be enjoying Prizegiving at the Stockport Plaza: preparing and checking the lists of names and communicating the glad tidings to parents and pupils.
This year social distancing means that we will not be squeezing into the iconic 1930s venue to watch and applaud the winners striding across the stage, even if adolescent shyness means that the chosen few might prefer to avoid the limelight and just pocket the cash.
The awarding of prizes is, of course, fraught with difficulty. Prizes offer the chance to acknowledge excellence in particular attributes, setting examples to the wider school community as well as using healthy competition to raise standards. But which attributes to reward? One might go for out and out achievement, recognising that most prizes in later life are awarded in this way. On the other hand, perhaps these students have glory and success enough through gaining sparkling public examination results, at least in due course. In addition, the same pupils may win the academic prizes year after year as they compete against the same cohort at different stages through their education; other pupils are doomed to come second repeatedly.
It is tempting to reward effort or approach; in many ways this is more virtuous than achievement and certainly something to be encouraged amongst all pupils of whatever ability. Equally this can have a whiff of the patronising as Jennings strides up to receive the effort prize despite his or her well-known position perilously close to the bottom of a lowly set.
Then there is the notion of rewarding ‘the most improved’: effectively a hybrid of rewarding effort and achievement, and with obvious appeal, but perhaps succeeding in neither regard. These prizes are sometimes won by pupils who, having underperformed for a couple of years, begin to work hard as public examination years approach and zoom up the rankings; whilst it is pleasing that they are now performing at a good level it is perhaps unfair to those who have achieved at the highest levels for many years and to those who have laboured diligently with less success.
The same dilemmas overshadow extra-curricular prizes: does one reward the captain of the team, who already enjoys the status of captaincy, or the faithful squad attendee who lacks the captain’s talent or the determined pupil who has secured a place in the A team after diligent progress upwards through the ranks? And how does one compare this with successes in different sports, whether team or individual?
Once a decision is reached on these prizes, a nagging sense of wishing to reward students who have made a great contribution to the life of the school, through positive and cheerful service to others, remains. This is, of course, difficult to measure, although crucial to recognise, and schools oscillate between asking one member of staff to simply nominate individuals through to a fully-fledged voting system for the whole staff or possibly the pupils.
The next consideration is the larger number of students who have not won a prize and whose response to the whole business may range from complete indifference to a catastrophic loss of self-esteem, feeling that their efforts and achievements have gone unrewarded and perhaps even unnoticed and unappreciated by the school. Worrying too much about this can lead to some dubious conclusions: no prizes to be awarded at all to prevent the possibility of emotional damage to a few; all must have prizes to nurture self-esteem but meaning that the importance of the prize is devalued to nought; an end to competitive activities of all sorts. Perhaps managing the disappointment of not winning a prize is a valuable life-lesson in itself.
Our prize lists contain prizes of all the above types and more which at least seems to cover all bases. The final decision is what the prizes should comprise. At SGS, mindful of the need to promote reading of all sorts in a predominantly visual age, and anxious to supply a semi-permanent memorial, we proffer book tokens hopeful that the prize-winners will purchase ‘mind-improving literature’, however that may be defined, rather than celebrity biography. Perhaps, however, the prize-winners would prefer (newly re-opened) cinema tickets, iTunes vouchers or an ice-cream.
Talking of ice-cream, the holidays are approaching. The prospect of travel at least within Europe seems tantalisingly close despite the gloomy prognosis of a few weeks ago; have a great summer. Let us hope that September brings a return to near normality in school life.