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South Africa

OPINIONISTA: The farce of school prize giving

Let’s take away the absurdity of the school prize-giving system and replace it with one that asks young people to play a positive role in building their communities.

My five-year-old is about to enter formal schooling and the thing we are not looking forward to is the concept of school prize giving. I have a natural distaste for awards such as “best attendance” or “best spirited”. Parents, teachers and kids all know that these are B-grade thanks – we need to give something to an average-performing kid and this is the best we could do.

It is a lie we are happy to tell our children. The bigger lie is that we pretend that this is about building the esteem of the child when we give them a prize that has no value.

While many would be agreeing with the ditching of the prizes that are clearly farcical, there is an argument that even the merit-based awards should be dropped. The brightest, smartest, fastest and most talented kids in the school all know they are the brightest, smartest, fastest and most talented, and giving them a trophy is not going to change that.

Imagine giving Usain Bolt a trophy for being the fastest kid in his school, or Stephen Hawking the prize for best maths student. These awards are as absurd as the best attendance awards, for you are building the confidence of kids that don’t need to be told they are good at what they do. These kids normally walk away clutching box loads of trophies, awards and prizes, and the kid with the attendance certificate can see what end of the spectrum s/he is on.

More often than not these awards are not about the kids at all. It is about parents competing against each other in the game of a “My kid is better than your kid” award. This inane game of one-upmanship is more about pushing out the chests of the parents as they pass condescending glances at the parents of kids who did not do as well as in the Academy Awards of the classroom.

The actual hypocrisy is that most of these educational institutions advocate the teaching of values, but few of the prizes revolve around changing and challenging society to be a better place. So let us take away the absurdity of the current school prize-giving system and replace it with one that asks young people to play a positive role in building their communities.

South Africa needs change-makers in society, so let the young people lead us in the change we need.

A future award template would look something like this:

On the surface, these values-based awards look soft, but on closer inspection, it confronts us all to think and act differently.

Prize-giving in its present guise is not working, for it leaves too many kids with no self-confidence, which is contrary to its very intention.

We measure and award what is important to us. If we change the metrics the outcomes will change.

The current system rewards individual excellence and not those who make a difference in society. This leads us to ask what kind of young person we would like to exit our education system. If the answer does not include a person who looks to build their communities, then education has been wasted on that person even if they have a good maths mark.

As for the five-year-old, we wish that she will be confident, outspoken, free-thinking and see herself as part of a solution. And if she never wins a prize, we will not be fussed – the true reward is the kind of person she becomes, rather than the number of ribbons around her neck. DM

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