I was in the Scouts, you know. I wasn't one of the greatest scouts but I did get a few badges. One was the 'science' badge which involved stuff I was interested in so it was an easy one. If I ever find it I'll sew it onto my lab coat and when anyone asks about my scientific qualifications, I'll point to the badge.
I didn't get many badges. I had one for knots, but I doubt I can remember how to tie a bowline or a sheepshank now. I can't even remember what the sheepshank was for. Still, I've never lost a fishing hook due to a badly tied line, so some of it stuck. Those badges weren't easy to get, apart from the 'science' one and I don't think I've ever met anyone else who had one of those. You had to work for them and earn them.
There was no badge for 'banging in a tent peg' or 'keeping your kit clean'. Those were simply expected. Failure could lead to punishment but the only reward for success was the absence of punishment. Likewise, the expression of good manners in dealing with people. Expected. Not rewarded.
The only thing I remember winning in school was an essay competition. There were prizes on sports day but, well, sports and me just never quite gelled. I didn't like sports and sports didn't like me so we kept away from each other. It worked well. I didn't get a certificate for the essay competition either - the prize was book tokens. Much more useful.
Well, that wasn't the only thing I won. I won a clutch of O levels, A levels and an S level (no, no employer knew what it was back then, either, but it meant I had the full set of biology qualifications when I left). I say 'won' because I had to put in the effort to get them. No certificate was ever handed out without good reason, so we valued the ones we managed to get.
Teachers didn't give us things. They taught us how to get things or make things. My parents still have the aluminium-and-steel model cannon I made in metalwork. I never did get around to making it fire, but I did learn to use a lathe, cast and shape metal, anneal and temper steel, riveting and much more. The only certificate I have is the O level at the end.
What I learned in chemistry and physics is probably best kept quiet about these days. I might get banned from flying if I put it here.
The point is, those certificates and prizes mattered because we had to work for them. The sporty types won prizes for running fastest or throwing things the furthest or lifting the heaviest thing. First, second and third counted. Nothing else. There was no certificate for 'totally bloody useless' so there was no point in me entering. I didn't feel left out or isolated. Those folk might be able to throw me around or run rings round me but not one of them would ever beat me in an insult contest. It meant sports day was worth watching because only those who thought they were in with a chance would enter, which meant there was a real competition going on.
Even the physically useless had an interest in sports day. Some naughty children ran a book (cough).
If our teachers had given us certificates for things like this -
...awards for remembering to bring their PE kit to school, upholding class rules and displaying good table manners.
- or these -
“Being very grateful for all the toys”
“Making a lovely Christmas decoration”
“Upholding class rules”
“Good table manners”
“Attending the multi-skills day”
“Trying really hard to play nicely”
“Being brave about trying Greek food”
“For reading, writing and skipping”
“Returning your form on time”
"Bringing your PE kit to school”
“Listening well and remembering to put your hand up”
“Good sitting on the carpet”
- we would have been bemused at best and embarrassed at worst. An award for listening? The point of listening was that it was the only way to get the award that mattered - the qualification at the end of the course. It's the equivalent of the sports award for being totally bloody useless. It means 'well, he's no good at it but at least he looks as though he's trying'.
As with the scouts, there was no award for remembering to bring PE kit or homework or anything else that was required. There were punishments for failure to do those things. It was made clear that we were responsible for those things and if we failed, nobody else was to blame.
Likewise, if I had been given an award for 'trying really hard to play nicely', I would have taken it as a sarcastic comment meaning 'this little twat is uncontrollable' and so would my father. That award would never have reached home. If I'd shown him an award for 'good table manners' he'd have wanted to know how I was eating before then. The only reason for such an award would be that the child previously ate like a starved and somewhat demented warthog, then learned how to do it like a human. When I was at school, receiving something like that would have been seriously humiliating.
These awards are for things that we were simply expected to do as civilised children. Even the class dope could use a knife and fork and dress themselves. Even the thugs had their ties on straight and their shirts clean and ironed. Even the scruffy ones, like me, would never dare turn up without their jackets.
I mean, an award for reading, writing and skipping? What course is that? If it involves all three at once then it certainly deserves an award. Good sitting on the carpet? Even the wording of the award is grammatical heresy. I expect my old English teacher to rise from the grave at any moment, kill the teachers concerned and leave convoluted sarcastic comments on the wall, written in the victim's own blood. That woman never hit a pupil. No need. She could have convinced us to hit ourselves if she'd wanted.
What is happening in schools now? An award for 'attending the multi-skills day', when attendance at school is already compulsory? That's like an employer handing out awards for 'turning up at a meeting'. Actually, I did get one of those. It was shortly before I became self employed. A visiting consultant was charged with telling a roomful of us about 'commercialisation of research' but instead waffled for most of the day then handed out certificates proving we had endured his pointless droning. Mine went straight in the bin. These days I charge for meetings so nobody asks for one unless it actually matters.
These kids will eventually leave school. Some might get jobs. They will expect to be applauded into work every morning and to get a certificate for turning up more than half the time. They will want sitting-at-a-desk certificates and coffee-making awards. They are going to get a very nasty shock.
In real life, there are punishments for getting things wrong but no awards for getting trivia right. Some things are just expected and if you can't do those things without constant praise, nobody will employ you for long. The way we were taught prepared us for that. The way these kids are being taught does not. Worse, many will fail to spot the difference between these random awards and real qualifications. Imagine receiving a CV with a list of these things!
The one that really caught my eye was this -
"Creating a lovely jellyfish independently”
Craig Ventner, the man whose team won the race to sequence the human genome, is currently trying to create a simple bacterium from scratch. It seems the schools are a little bit ahead of him on that one.
Perhaps that child will be applying for God's job one day.