Ban on school prize givings may damage students, says headmaster

Auckland Grammar Headmaster, Tim O'Connor is hoping successful schools will retain their independence. - Photo: RNZ Insight/John Gerritsen

An Auckland Secondary school headmaster says banning school prize givings at a primary school level could be damaging to students.

Silverdale School and Stella Maris Primary on the Hibiscus Coast have both scrapped their end of year prize givings because they don't want to upset children who miss out.

Silverdale Primary School principal Cameron Lockie argued that children should try to succeed because they want to, not because of rewards that he calls "subjective at best".

At nearby Stella Maris Primary they have also got rid of the end of year ceremonies.

Principal Alan Watts said it tended to be the same kids who won the prizes, which was not particularly motivating to other children.

"I think we've got to move to children working for an intrinsic reward rather than an extrinsic reward, and I don't think in primary the children sit down and think, 'Well, I'm going to work for the end of year best all round medal in whatever," he said.

Secondary School Auckland Grammar has a reputation for its competitive environment, with classes streamed according to academic achievement from A to P.

Headmaster Tim O'Connor made no apology for recognising student success at their annual prize giving, and he was not too impressed with the Silverdale schools' position.

"I'd describe that sort of behaviour as politically correct and in fact damaging to student pathways from primary into secondary school and, actually, beyond that into life," he said.

"The reality is, your school may have done away with winners and losers but life hasn't."

Clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher also thought that in their desire to protect children, schools actually risk doing harm.

"It's absolutely essential for kids to experience failure. Actually life and learning is about failing and going, 'Huh, that didn't work. I've got to try it some more or I've got to try a different approach'," she said.

"If we are so busy protecting our kids from the experience of failure then we are doing them a dis-service."

At the same time, she said, people's self esteem and sense of worth should not be tied up with winning prizes.

She was more likely to see someone who strove to be top of the class sitting opposite her in her psychology office than someone who - while perhaps not a high achiever - accepted their lot in life.

"I've got lots of young people who come through my door who haven't had an experience of failure and don't know what the hell to do with it."

But Jenny Poskitt from Massey University's Institute of Education said the principals who scrapped prize givings were "courageous" for going against convention.

She said prize givings could be positive - if awards were given out fairly and through a transparent process - but could also be very tough for kids who missed out.

"If it's done well and the community involved in the decision understand why; and [they] receive useful and accessible information about the progress their children have made; and acknowledgement of the different strengths and attributes and personalities they have; then there's no problem."

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