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The vexed question of school awards ceremonies and whether they serve any constructive purpose

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Over the past two years many pupils had to make huge sacrifices owing to the pandemic to keep up with their schoolwork. Many could not attend school regularly. Is it time to do away with individual awards and reward all pupils and teachers?

It is that time of the year when schools hold special events to honour hard-working pupils for their achievements. But not everyone agrees with this practice. Research by a doctoral student at the University of South Africa suggests that academic awards create barriers in the pursuit of inclusive education.

Shakira Akabor is opposed to visible recognition of achievements through trophies and badges because this excludes some children. According to her it only benefits pupils who are motivated by external factors of physical acknowledgement. She is of the opinion that pupils must not work for recognition but because they enjoy it. And what about those who are internally motivated by setting goals for themselves? she asks. She argues that inclusive education acknowledges all children and not just the chosen few.

During a radio programme in which some guests, including myself, debated this matter, it was striking that most of the parents who phoned in were opposed to the current way of acknowledging academic achievement. The overwhelming sentiment was that all children work hard and give their best and that it is not fair to honour only a few of those whose parents can afford to get the best help for their children. I am not opposed to any awards myself. But like all other things in life, a balance is needed.

It is interesting that 66% of Akabor’s respondents were pupils who had been acknowledged. They also believe that a more representative group of pupils deserve acknowledgement. Over the past two years many pupils had to make huge sacrifices owing to the pandemic to keep up with their schoolwork. Many could not attend school regularly; not out of choice, but because the government had neglected to create an infrastructure so that pupils could continue their tuition. Nevertheless, pupils managed to pass. Surely they deserve some form of recognition? I am not referring to academics only, but also to sports and culture.

Covid-19 offers the opportunity to be innovative. I remember a year when ALL the pupils in my school received awards. How did we do it? Instead of prizes only for first, second and third place, those who had improved by 5% on their previous best received a bronze medal. Those who had improved by 6% to 10% received a silver medal, and a gold medal was presented to pupils who had improved by more than 10%. Not forgetting the children who are managing the first aid – they are just as important as the one who scored the winning try.

In this way more children receive acknowledgement while others are inspired to follow their example.

Also, we dare not forget the hard-working teachers. Covid-19 has separated the wheat from the chaff: pupils (and parents) now know which teachers really care for the child and who is there just to receive a salary. Pupils know which teachers do their work, and who does not. Perhaps it is time that pupils honour the teachers who are prepared to walk the extra mile with them. DM

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