August 2, 2013 6:31 pm

Fun: it’s not just for fun, you know

‘Awards become less about helping others or building character than about collecting ticks for your next application form’
An illustration depicting how extracurricular activities have become part of studying©Lucas Varela

One of the nieces is undertaking the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It involves, among other things, a two-day hike and a night sleeping in a borrowed tent in some midge-infested field with no sanitary facilities and stinging nettles for toilet paper. The scheme is, of course, immensely popular with people who would bring back national service, fostering, as it does, a sense of community, discipline, responsibility and a deep love of chemical toilets.

But before the howls of irritation grow too loud, let me stress that I am all in favour of royal sponsored schemes that teach you how to be an adult. That’s why we’ve enrolled the boy in the Prince Harry Award, which next year will see him spend two nights in Las Vegas learning how to play strip poker.

Until this week I’d been entirely unfussed about the Duke’s award, placing it in that harmless category of generally good things I wouldn’t actually do myself. For all my cynicism, it is patently well-motivated. To win a gold award, for example, you have to demonstrate some fairly heavy-duty voluntary work such as forming a new group for the elderly, working with kids with disabilities or running a refugee centre for people fleeing the north of England.

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Robert Shrimsley

But then it emerged that the reason schools are so keen on the award is less its character-building value than the fact that it counts for quite a lot on a university application form. Character building is a valuable by-product, you understand, but what really matters are all the extra Oxbridge points. You can see why colleges take this view. How could one possibly hope to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford without a good working knowledge of canoes? Likewise, whoever heard of a barrister unable to put up a tent? It is easy to see how a year’s service to the Duke’s award can mark you out on an application form over someone who has merely reached a 30 XP level in Minecraft.

The problem is that now it is enshrined as an application-boosting exercise, the schools which pay a lot of attention to university applications are signing up their pupils for every tent-, midge- and charity-based activity at their disposal. The award becomes less about helping others or building character than about collecting ticks for your next application form to take you to the next level. Rather like a computer game in that respect, except with fewer zombies.

The dear old Duke’s award is not unique in this respect. Relatives who are thinking about their university applications tell me that all activities can be measured in terms of Ucas points. Playing a musical instrument might once have been an end in itself. Now you are going to need grade three or above. The points increase with rare instruments, which may explain the sudden epidemic of lutenists in southwest London. This is hard on the boy, who likes guitar but, foolishly, is more interested in learning how to play tunes than pass exams with it.

But it is not hard to see it from the college’s perspective. At a time when faith in exam qualifications is falling so low that even a middling university can demand three As at A-level as a minimum entry requirement, these extra activities help with the selection that was once achieved by educational attainment alone.

This has a sad consequence, however. Once, extracurricular activities were the thing you did for fun; things you did because you enjoyed them and as a break from studying and striving. Now they are being turned into part of the same process. As a student, you are free to choose from an almost unlimited range of activities but you can no longer just enjoy them. Leisure activities are a serious business. We need measurable progress, grades that can be met; key performance indicators to drive progress; stretch targets to demonstrate commitment.

When it comes to recreation, if it doesn’t have a gold or silver award at the end then it really isn’t worth the effort. So take fun seriously, dammit. Your future may depend on it.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Twitter @robertshrimsley

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