While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your House points, while any rule-breaking will lose House points. At the end of the year, the House with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour.
Anyone who’s read a Harry Potter book will recognise these words by Professor McGonagall but rest assured that what follows is not a blog post about Harry Potter.
It was, however, by reading J.K. Rowling’s wizarding series two decades ago that I was introduced to the concept of ‘house points,’ an antiquated system used by many British schools to reward good behaviour, sports accomplishments etc.
Many years later when my children started school I discovered that house points are still very much in use at schools all over London and further afield.
Although I found the practice of giving pupils points for keeping their desk tidy or being polite and helpful quite old fashioned, I wasn’t too bothered by it at first, especially as my children seemed to enjoy the challenge of scoring points for their ‘House’. That was before they discovered that not only were house points awarded, they were also taken away in the event of ‘bad’ behaviour.
By the time she was in her last year of primary school, my eldest daughter was sick and tired of how her teachers used the promise of house points to control pupils, and she had my full sympathy. Even though many British schools claim that using house points helps to foster a sense of community and shared responsibility amongst pupils, in practice, they serve, as a teacher’s tool to reign in students, and to suppress any undesirable behaviour.
Judging by the countless times I’ve heard my children and their friends worry about losing house points if they raise an awkward issue with their teachers, the points system is nothing if not effective.
‘Come on girls,’ I’d say, ‘if something is not right, tell your teacher, launch a protest, do something!’, hoping to instil a smattering of rebelliousness in my daughters but to no avail. The threat of shame and humiliation associated with losing house points keeps them on the straight and narrow.
It’s not that I am obsessing about house points per se, what bothers me most is how they serve to reinforce a hierarchical structure of power within the school system.
For my biggest beef is with hierarchy itself, an organising principle that ranks people in order of importance, authority or ability, and which does little to foster a sense of community, learning and personal development.
Now in her first year of secondary school, my eldest daughter attends a ‘progressive’ school where everyone – teachers, staff, pupils and parents – are on a first name basis. There’s no school uniform, and the teachers couldn’t care less whether or not you’re able to write neatly with a fountain pen. These may seem like minor matters, but as evidenced by my daughter’s transformation since she moved school, there’s nothing minor in their impact.
My daughter herself attests to the positive effect that calling her teachers by their first names have had on her learning. Absent the hierarchical structure enforced by the traditional school system, she feels much more at ease in her relationship with teachers, no longer afraid to approach them with questions or concerns.
Looking back at my own experience as a student as well as my brief foray into teaching, I am all the more convinced that pupils – whether they’re children, teenagers or adults – learn best in a non-hierarchical system, in an atmosphere free from fear and where the relationship between teacher and pupil is both informal and respectful. How crazy is that?