Last night was our annual awards evening for academic achievement – our school Oscars. Subjects had nominated their top three students in each year group, and winners were announced in front of a packed audience of family and loved ones.
Our guest speaker was a former student who is now a freelance children’s book illustrator. She and our headteacher both talked about how we seem to have a culture where academic success is something to hide, not celebrate. It got me thinking about why this is the case in schools, and how it is perhaps reflected in society in general.
I’m all for celebrating the achievements of students, whether they are academic or not. I fully recognise that for some students school is incredibly difficult, but they can excel in sport or performing arts, and that this should be recognised. I do get frustrated, however, when I see non-academic achievements being celebrated over academic ones. At the very least, they should have equal status in our schools.
Looking to the wider community, it’s not hard to see this reflected both across the UK and globally. The BBC have their annual Sports Personality of the Year awards. It’s a big, splashy event, with celebrity athletes being celebrated for their sporting achievements. We have the BAFTAs and the National Television Awards, where the glitterati of the showbiz world are recognised for, amongst other things, their ability to pretend to be someone else on a regular basis.
At the Oscars themselves, perhaps the pinnacle of the entertainment award season, the technical awards – a short section – take place two weeks before the main ceremony with little glitz and glamour. The people who spend their time working on the technology that allows actors and directors to win big awards are pushed off to the side rather than being celebrated at the main event.
I think that if I was to survey our students, quite a large proportion of them would be able to name Olympic medallists, Balloon d’Or winners or the past five years of Premier League champions. Very few, if any, would be able to name Nobel Prize winners from any category.
I don’t have a magic solution to balance the importance of academic and non-academic achievements in schools. I’ve been in schools where sport is prioritised, up to and including students being withdrawn from lessons where assessment is taking place because they’re wanted as part of a team. I’ve also worked in a school where there was a panel of staff who had to approve every student representing the school in any extra-curricular activity or trip – if their grades weren’t on track, or if their behaviour was poor, they didn’t play or they didn’t go. This led to one student memorably missing the grand final of the rugby league competition, because his behaviour wasn’t up to scratch and he was causing too many problems. Harsh? Yes. Fair? Also yes. He knew about the system in advance and had been warned frequently that it could happen. The ripple effect this had on the behaviour of others wasn’t to be ignored either. The boy was allowed to watch the match and support his team, but there was a lesson there that sport wasn’t the most important part of his schooling. Incidentally, he went on the next year to captain the team and win the following grand final, so I think the longer lasting impact was positive.
It was great to see the venue so packed last night that it was standing room only. It means that our parents and families do see the value in celebrating academic achievement. Hearing the cheers as the winners were announced and seeing the smiles on the students’ faces was a brilliant way to spend an evening. Perhaps we need to do more to celebrate academic achievement throughout the year rather than just one night late in Summer term.