I was never one of those children who needed a wheelbarrow to collect my prizes on Speech Day. Inexplicably, I did win an art prize for a decidedly average painting of a sailing boat but there were very few other triumphs. Indeed, my only other prize of note was the Year 7 reading prize which was probably more attributable to the quality of Laurie Lee’s prose rather than the questionable eloquence of my high pitched delivery. Sitting in Ipswich Corn Exchange, hands sore from endless clapping, I tried to engage with whichever achingly dull captain of industry had been wheeled out to inspire us. Jokes about chemical processing or automated valve systems were perhaps a little too esoteric for my young mind and I remember that time seemed to stand still on such stifling afternoons.
You may remember the fuss which accompanied the decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature. Great songs Bob, but the Nobel Prize for Literature? He was honoured for having created ‘new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. I am sure that more than one or two authors felt a little cheated. One can hardly escape the conclusion that the nomination panel wanted to prove their street cred.
Similarly, who can forget fellow Laureate Seamus Heaney pronouncing that Eminem was the outstanding literary genius of his generation? ~Seamus loftily informed us that:
Eminem has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.
Still, Eminem’s verbal play did inspire poet laureate Andrew Motion to write a rap for Prince William’s 21st birthday:
Better stand back
Here’s an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine.
It’s a threshold, a gateway,
A landmark birthday;
It’s a turning of the page,
A coming of age.
Inspired stuff indeed but within the arts praise and accolades can often emerge from arcane pomposity and a subjectivity that leads to bafflement. The Turner Prize never fails to oblige and entertain in this department. In 2016, we were told that:
“Marten’s objects read almost as hieroglyphics, a visual system of communication that is expressive yet rooted in logic, which makes rational the combination of a pickle with an electrical circuit, or a pillar drill alongside a bowl of fish skins.”
And who can forget Tracey Emin’s unmade bed? That is a work of art that many of our children create every morning but we were told by Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, that it constitutes ‘one of the iconic works from the late Nineties’.
So how do we discern what is truly worthy of praise? After all, if we lavish praise on that which is truly mediocre then we risk stifling the potential for future development. We risk wallowing in a pool of self-congratulatory complacency and applauding that which is not especially worthy of praise. Positive encouragement which serves to challenge, affirm and inspire is much more valuable than unthinking praise which is all too often given without qualification.
Ron Berger from EL Education demonstrated the ‘transformational power of models, critique and descriptive feedback’ by demonstrating how a little boy called Austin in ANSER Charter School in Boise improved his drawing of a butterfly by redrafting his work multiple times in light of constructive feedback. It demonstrates what can truly be achieved if one possesses a growth mindset and insist upon high expectations.
(You can watch the video of this story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms .)
If we have high expectations and promote a critically reflective approach then those around us will exceed our expectations in every regard.
Our prize winners here at Rossall are deserving of our praise in every regard. It is right that so many of our prizes are awarded for effort and perseverance. We celebrate the endeavour of those who have committed to the journey rather than simply applauding those who have reached the final destination. Indeed, the pursuit of excellence is a mindset rather than an achievable end point. Our children travel along this road at their own speed and in their own inimitable way. There will be times when they take frustrating detours or appear to momentarily stall and so it is important for us to reflect upon how we engage and motivate all children.
Prize Days are a time to celebrate the achievement of our pupils and it is very much a day for children and their families, whatever Headmasters and others might think. I am delighted that this year, our guest speaker will be the Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, and I know that she will inspire us in every regard. Amidst all the clapping and pageantry, do spare a thought for those boys and girls who are not striding up to the platform this year. Many of them have achieved extraordinary things this year and there really is no hierarchy in this community predicated upon medals, trophies or shields. We are proud of our School and proud of all that has been achieved this year. That pride extends to every member of this community and not just those fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize. In the broadest sense, prize day is a time to celebrate the achievement and spirit of this wonderful school. We do so by reflecting upon the past and commemorating our benefactors during the Chapel Service. The awarding of prizes is representative of current endeavour, and the speeches and tour of the new Sports Hall articulates future ambition.
Finally, we have an opportunity this weekend to say goodbye to our Year 13 students. They are a wonderful body of young men and women and a credit to themselves and their families. I hope that my daughters will grow up to possess the confidence, compassion and commitment that our 2019 leavers demonstrate in all areas of their lives. In particular, I should like to thank Will Gair and Hannah Parkinson and who have been superb School Captains in every regard. They have led an outstanding team of monitors and they have been ably assisted by their deputies. We wish Will and Hannah and all of our Sixth Formers the very best in their forthcoming examinations.