I’m beginning to develop ‘a thing’ about speech days. I know, it’s now out of season – in most schools, speech day, prize-giving or founder’s day celebrations sit happily at the end of the school year, handily filling a niche between the end of exams and the official last day. They bask in the summer sunshine, as much a celebration for the whole school of the year just ended as an award ceremony for the many high flyers the school will have nurtured through the academic year.
Usually, they are self-congratulatory ceremonies with many public declarations of approval and applause for the prize-winners. The visiting speaker will congratulate them, and their parents and teachers, with lots of spurs of advice for both the winners – ‘Well done! Keep it up! See you next year!’ – and the ‘losers’ – ‘Work hard! Work harder! Stay focused! You too could be a winner next year!’
Tell me that in physics, and I’d still be struggling. In English literature? OK, maybe it would be wiser not to spend the night before one of the A-level English papers staying over with a friend with a little less interest in the exam than I had, and therefore little incentive to stop chatting into the small hours.
Whatever advice is offered for the year ahead, I imagine that for most students the new academic year feels a very long way away and therefore not something to be examined too closely yet. And if you happen to be trapped in a year group full of a disproportionate number of the school’s acknowledged ‘brain boxes’ or ‘sporting stars’, one might even be a tad disheartened at the prospect of another year in their shadows.
‘But his Dad played for England, I’m never going to be as good as him and he’s a foot taller than me and her mother is French, no wonder she’s fluent, it’s not fair, I can’t win!’ I am sure there is many a student, hearing the hearty words from the stage, and feeling defeated before they begin.
In examination years, subject prizes are tricky, given the official GCSE and A-level results are not available until August.
If the prize is for the best performer in a subject, there are fingers crossed for the gamble of declaring ‘best’ in advance of August. It is possible that results day will bring prizes into question – ‘OK, you got the year prize, but I got the A*!’
Some schools resolve the ‘predictions fingers crossed’ bridge by holding speech days early in the autumn term. One might think that the previous year’s upper sixth and usual winners of big subject prizes would have already flown their childhood nests, making their way, and no doubt more high marks, in universities scattered far and wide.
But I can testify for one school which sustained an autumn Founder’s Day, with prize winners effectively confirmed by the summer’s results, and it was lovely to see the flown birds flocking together for one last ceremony.
There was a very different feel to the occasion compared to the many I have attended at the end of the summer term, when many examinees and some overseas students will have fled early, everyone is tired and there is a sigh of longing for the freedom of the holidays. Not in itself a good time to be deciding to try harder, keep striving and never give up. Enough already!
And then, just occasionally, there may be a revolutionary thought. How often do we stop to think about what we are rewarding as we hand out the prizes and certificates?
I recently enjoyed the privilege of attending a school’s founder’s day prize-giving ceremony, and for me, the programme was revolutionary.
It began by reminding readers that the school had five aims, and the awards were being made in the light of these:
● To take ownership of our lives
● Respect ourselves, others and the environment
● Aspire and persevere
● Be courageous and honest
● Contribute to our community and to society.
Aren’t they great? None of them actually say, ‘Work hard’, though that is probably covered by ‘Aspire and persevere’.
There were what we might call subject prizes, but for this school they were called awards and the banner headline for these in year 11 and year 13 was ‘For aspiring and achieving’. No mention of being the best. Even thinking about a pupil’s performance in those terms, rather than the usual ‘top of the class, highest marks, great grades’, releases staff from what amounts to a numerical/grade straightjacket of expectation.
Even more revolutionary – so far as I knew, and I would be interested to hear if many of our schools are moving in this direction – there were four other categories in which awards were made:
● For contributing to our community and to society
● For being courageous and honest
● For respecting themselves, others and the environment
● For taking ownership of their lives.
In this last section, there were medals for effort, excellence, achievement and leadership.
What I like about the whole flavour of the day’s programme is that it offers categories which matter to citizens, and indeed help to fashion good citizens, and which are attainable for every student, not just the one who is the son of an astrophysicist from a gene pool of genius and therefore winning all the prizes in every subject. Not just the tallest lad in the school who can score in basketball because of physical gifts over which he has no control but against which his friends cannot compete.
You don’t have to be academically brilliant to achieve wonders in the categories above, and you don’t have to be supernaturally gifted. These four things are subject to the decisions children make for themselves and in response to their surroundings and, indeed, our expectations of them.
Which brings me to a moment in one of the five speech days I was privileged to attend this summer. It was a boys’ prep school, and there were the usual independent school prizes for excellence in many subjects and areas, all listed in the programme.
But at the end of the programme there was a prize named after its donor, a much-loved teacher recently retired from the school. This was not subject-related, rather it was to be awarded to the boy who had made the biggest contribution to the school in terms of kindness and care for others. A good-citizen prize, you might say.
We may say that we value kindness, but where does that show and when do we reward it? Can it be acknowledged publicly? Have we matured to the point where consideration for others is seen as of equal value to all the other achievements that our programmes list?
Best moment of all? When the head making the announcement told his audience that of all the prizes awarded that day, the one that mattered most to the boys, the one they chased throughout the whole school year, was this last prize: for kindness.
Perhaps it could be on your list?
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of The Boarding Schools’ Association.
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