Schools allay doubt over fairness of prizes

00:50, Oct 25 2014

Are school prizegivings fair?

A Massey University education researcher says no – it sometimes depends on who you know.

But school principals around Christchurch disagree, saying awarding prizes is tough work, especially when eager pupils and well-meaning parents place great importance on a trophy haul.

Massey University researcher Jenny Poskitt has studied prizegivings and experienced them as a pupil, parent and board of trustees member.

"You see, for example, that with parents who are involved in education, or might be heavily involved in voluntary work such as PTA [Parent-Teacher Association], the probability of their students gaining prizes increases," she said.

However, high-achieving pupils might be more likely to have highly engaged parents – the kind who sit on a board of trustees or join the PTA.


Schools should be up front on the prizes process to avoid "conspiracy theories" Poskitt said.

Former Lincoln High School principal Linda Tame said parents occasionally raised issues about award recipients but being seen to be fair avoided problems.

You've got to be seen to be fair."

Christ's College headmaster Simon Leese said the school avoided surprises by notifying award winners in advance.

"We do the same with sports colours. No awards are announced until those left out have been seen and decisions explained."

All principals The Press spoke to agreed prizegiving length was an issue. The shorter, the better. Horror anecdotes about interminable four-hour ceremonies were incentive enough to be brief.

"I dealt with that by not having a guest speaker," former Christchurch Girls' High School principal Prue Taylor said.

"That way – this sounds absolutely terrible – I could control the prizegiving."

Prizegivings, which included the entire school, ran a little more than two hours under Taylor's watch.

Tame kept them to three hours, including a half-hour break.

"Keep the speeches short," she said. "No-one wants to listen to them.


Love or loathe them, if you have children or grandchildren, there's no escaping them.

And school prizegivings are becoming, at some schools, patience-sapping exercises in endurance - some lasting close to four hours - held in special hired venues.

Prizegivings are used as a celebration of a school's success - the success of its students, its teachers, its culture.

But what about prizegivings' dark side. The jealousies, the disappointments, the bitterness.

One parent told me her daughter was almost hysterical and couldn't sleep after two of her friends won a prize and she didn't, even though there was very little between them in terms of achievement. She and her daughter thought the decision was so unfair they made a formal complaint to the school's principal.

Winning prizes isn't always the thrill you'd expect either. Some pupils win a science prize and complain they didn't win the maths prize; win a music prize but desperately wish they'd won a sports prize.

Kiwis are well trained in not crowing about success, or showing their disappointment or jealousies, but you can bet that among the people leaving prizegivings around the nation's schools between now and Christmas, there will be a great swirl of conflicting emotions.

Some students and parents will feel elated, some crushed. Some will feel uplifted by the display of school talent and spirit, others will be numbed by boredom. Some will feel jealous, and some may even feel embarrassed - either by too much success or not enough. And there will be plenty trying to work out the politics of it all - why did X win the prize as opposed to Y?

A question then emerges: Do prizegivings encourage student achievement? Does missing out on a prize encourage students to strive harder or do feelings of disappointment or even injustice result in less motivation?

Massey University education researcher Jenny Poskitt says the crucial thing is how clear a school is about the criteria used for awards.

"The advice I'd give is that schools make sure their criteria for prizes are clearcut, transparent and open. It can be difficult when prizes are a little nebulous - best all-rounder, for example. On what basis is that awarded? The weighting of the mix of academic/sports should be clear to parents and students. That's when it's motivating: when they can see the criteria are clear and fair for everybody. It becomes demotivating, and people become suspicious, when the criteria are not clear and decisions seem arbitrary."

Over her years involved in education as a student, a parent, a board of trustees member and researcher, Poskitt has been to many prizegivings. And she has talked to many students and parents from different schools around the country.

On the whole, she thinks that prizegivings score highly for achieving what they're supposed to do: celebrate excellence within a school, whether academic, sporting or cultural.

But there is a pattern she's noticed that's less positive.

"You see, for example, that with parents who are involved in education - teaching at school or on boards of trustees - or who have a fair bit of financial, business or time investment in the school, or might be heavily involved in voluntary work such as PTA, the probability of their students gaining prizes increases.

"Those sorts of patterns are in all parts of New Zealand, not just one particular type of school; it does happen. That's why it's so important that schools are upfront about how those decisions are made. Then you don't give rise to those conspiracy theories about who gets prizes and why.

"If you want to motivate and inspire kids to strive for excellence in all endeavours, they need to perceive that it's fair, need to know what the game is and how to play it, to be inspired. If it's not fair, or they don't know how to get it, then it's not going to motivate them."

Poskitt says prizegivings are a great opportunity for schools to showcase their values and the multiple talents at the school.

Songs, dance, music, haka, video clips - there are all sorts of things schools do to make the events interesting.

Prizegivings shouldn't drag on forever though. "You don't want to be going beyond three hours." If a prizegiving is going to be particularly long, she suggests letting people know beforehand; that way they can decide in advance whether to take younger siblings along, and pace themselves during the event.

Some schools have separate junior and senior prizegivings. And some schools have ceremonies that are for prizewinners and their families only - often because school halls can accommodate only a certain number of people.

While Poskitt says there's an upside to prizewinner-only events in that "it protects some of your more vulnerable students who might be disappointed", she worries at the loss of a chance to motivate.

"It's only when you attend a prizegiving that you realise the range of prizes that are up for grabs." Knowing what's available can plant seeds of ambition to win one of those prizes.

It's also important for lessons about winning and losing.

"Everyone is going to encounter disappointments in life; everyone has to learn to cope with that; many of the top sportspeople of the world will say they have lost more games and had more disappointments than wins and rewards."

Poskitt says steps can be taken to soften the blow of disappointment for students who might reasonably have expected to win a top prize. Some schools will have a meeting with affected students before a prizegiving to explain why they haven't won an award. If schools don't want to give advance warning, then they could make some form of counselling or support available for those who really struggle with their disappointment afterwards, she says.

And then there's the more subtle, but widely used tactic, of alerting parents in advance of prizegivings that their child will win an award, but not the details of the award.

So if it's close to a prizegiving date, and you haven't heard from anyone at the school that you really should make an effort to attend, then that's a fairly reliable indicator there won't be any awards coming your child's way.

At least, not this year.


The Press emailed a range of school principals asking for their thoughts on prizegivings. The three principals who responded were Simon Leese from Christ's College, John Rohs from Aranui High School and Phil Holstein from Riccarton High School. 

Simon Leese, Christ's College headmaster:

What role do you consider prizegivings play within your school?

They are an important opportunity to celebrate success and service - we have academic work, sport, community service, service to the school all recognised at the same time.

Do prizegivings encourage student achievement?

I believe they do - by deliberately not focusing exclusively on any one aspect of a full and balanced education. The awards build towards the awards for service - a strong emphasis. The prizegivings provide recognition - but are not the prime motivator. That comes from recognition structures embedded in the school.

Is there a downside to prizegivings in terms of jealousies or feelings of being excluded?

Interesting question. But no. We are very careful to emphasise shared ambition and achievement, and respecting the talents and abilities of others. The "tall poppy" business is (I believe) completely absent, thank goodness. We have had many occasions where individuals have had their minor accomplishments applauded as energetically as the highest achievers in academia, or apart. The boys know they could all be up there for something - if they want to be.

Of course, we celebrate achievements each week in assembly. Prizegivings are an extension of that, and are generally seen as such.

How common is it for parents to complain if they are not happy about the outcome of the prizegiving?

Another good question. It never happens with us. We deliberately don't have "surprises" on the day - all awardees know in advance. That way, anyone who may have thought they were in line for an award (or parents of) can be familiar with the process and the decision in advance. We do the same with sports colours (always keenly pursued) - no awards are announced until those left out have been seen and decisions explained.

John Roh, Aranui High School principal:

Our school prizegiving is hugely important in contributing to our culture of achievement in the school. Students and whanau look forward to this event every year as it's the most important opportunity for students to be recognised in front of the whole community - peers, parents and wider whanau and staff. It's also a great opportunity for students to share their creative talents as most schools will use these occasions to showcase their performing group - choirs, bands, kapa haka etc.

Phil Holstein, Riccarton High School principal:

Phil Holstein says he and his staff have given a lot of thought to prizegivings and recognising student achievement because it's important to get it right.

Holstein says end-of-year prizegivings are just one element of a network of ceremonies held throughout the year to recognise and celebrate student success.

While service, effort, improvement and performance are recognised during the year, the end-of-year senior prizegiving is about celebrating excellence.

Holstein agrees that yes, it can be hard when one person is recognised for an award that maybe 10 others could have won. But such disappointments are part of life, he says. And as long as the school is transparent and able to defend the decisions made, based on clear criteria, there shouldn't be an issue.

Holstein says prizegivings can often be long, so he has decided his speech should be only five minutes.

He says prizegivings can be "quite an emotional thing".

The Press