The principal of Silverdale School, Cameron Lockie, says his decision to cancel the school prizegiving this year has caused a lot of discussion in its community. The report of his decision in yesterday's Herald has widened that discussion greatly. It is prizegiving season for all schools and all will be grappling with the same problem: how do you recognise the best without discouraging the rest?
The problem does not arise in sports and other competitive exercises where there are clear winners and the prize is an essential part of the exercise. Nor should it be a problem in secondary school academic subjects that can be tested reasonably objectively and marks awarded. But certainly in primary and perhaps intermediate schools, prizegivings need to be very carefully handled.
Silverdale's principal says: "There is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation."
That may be true for those who miss out but it will be equally true that awards, rewards and other external incentives are extremely motivating for those who receive them. Especially if they did not expect to receive them. Sometimes a prize is the first time a child truly realises they have talent in a particular direction.
They may have had plenty of praise for their work but they hear children being praised all the time, often for something unremarkable. Children are not fools. They quickly sense when a price is worth striving for, or just something that is handed out to everyone.
Children might not necessarily be sore losers either. Silverdale's principal believes that, "for the majority of children who don't receive awards, the prizegiving spurs boredom, anger or resentment". Does it? For very young children, probably. But as they progress through primary school they ought to discover pleasure in the success of others and learn to cope with disappointments without becoming discouraged.
Primary schools ought to be able make prizegivings part of a year-ending gathering that celebrates every deserving effort in some way as well as recognising those who have done especially well. None need feel like a loser if they know they have done well but somebody has done better.
It is sad to read that some schools these days do not encourage children and their parents to come to the prizegiving unless the child is getting an award. The rest are being excluded from any possibility of sharing in the pleasure of friends and feeling they are part of the school. They are being excluded because the school leadership lacks the imagination to make the event warm and enjoyable for all.
One way of doing so may be to ensure that prizes are few and meaningful. They ought not to be based on subjective judgments of merit or progress but measurable achievements that are clear to all of the child's classmates.
When a child has missed out they should be praised not just for their effort but for coming to terms with disappointment too. They should sense this is another valuable experience that is part of growing up.
Schools rightly want every child to succeed and it is their challenge to encourage them all and acknowledge every achievement. But that need not be at the expense of recognising those who do best. It need not be devastating for the rest, it can be the spur to do better.