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Bribery boosts exam results for poor students

news | Published in TES magazine on 3 May, 2013 | By: Adi Bloom and Irena Barker

Money can motivate disadvantaged children to succeed

Bribing children from poor homes with cash rewards to attend school, do their homework and read books is the most effective way to improve their exam results, a major research project has concluded.

The lure of money is a far more effective way to boost the attainment of disadvantaged students than other large-scale initiatives to raise aspirations, according to a review of more than 165,000 research studies and journal articles.

But offering money in direct exchange for final results has little impact because children from poor backgrounds do not know what steps to take to succeed, according to the research. Instead, children should be rewarded for the small steps they need to take to achieve good grades.

The conclusions, from Professor Stephen Gorard of the UK’s University of Birmingham, were presented this week at the American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco. They draw on research completed in Australia, Britain and the US.

Professor Gorard recommends that schools put aside up to US$200 (£130) a year for poor students, a portion of which is taken away each time a student fails to meet set goals on attendance and work. In the UK, the money could be aimed at students who are eligible for free school meals, although other countries have tried a tiered approach, Professor Gorard said.

His research calls into question government investment in schemes that attempt to raise student aspiration on the basis that aspiration alone will improve results. Looking at the evidence in the various research reports, which collectively involved more than a million students, he found that neither parental expectations of educational success nor students’ own aspirations made any difference to their actual grades.

“Aspiration could be an indication of success, not its cause,” Professor Gorard said. “Anyone with a sole concern to improve educational outcomes for those most at risk would be advised to seek an intervention elsewhere.”

By contrast, when students were offered financial rewards for academic performance, there was a noticeable difference. Several studies, involving more than 40,000 students in total, considered the effects of educational bribery. When students from state schools in four US cities - Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington, DC - were offered financial rewards in exchange for good test results, it did not have a significant effect.

Professor Gorard said that this was because students wanted the cash but did not know how to go about earning it. “Interviews with the students suggest that, although they may be excited about the incentives, they do not actually know how to improve their grades,” he said.

But paying students for the smaller steps that ultimately led to good results had a far more positive effect. When students were rewarded for attendance, good behaviour, completing their homework and wearing correct uniform, their reading and maths scores improved.

Paying students to read books led to a particularly noticeable improvement in reading comprehension, Professor Gorard said, and offering cash rewards to children’s families for engaging in educational activities also had a positive effect on results.

Schools in the UK have experimented with various types of reward schemes to motivate children, to varying degrees of success, including the widely used Vivo Miles system, in which students collect credits towards prizes including iPods.

But David Day, principal of the Isle of Sheppey Academy in Kent, South East England, told TES that he had dropped the scheme because the results did not justify the cost. He has now turned to the cheaper alternative of writing postcards and letters to students when they perform well or show a good attitude or attendance.

“We felt that the power of words could be more influential than the power of monetary rewards,” he said. “Children like to be praised. Ultimately, students have to have it in their hearts and minds; the ambition for success cannot be bought. It’s self-motivation that we must engender.”

Professor Gorard said that while investment in initiatives to raise aspiration might not improve results, it could have other benefits. “Attainment is important but it is only one possible educational outcome,” he said. “Others - such as future participation, well-being, preparation for citizenship, resilience and happiness - could be just as important.

“Interventions to make school more pleasant and enjoyable, so enhancing school engagement, may not (translate) into improved grades. But this is still an intrinsically good thing to do.”


US schools have been at the forefront of trying out various forms of cash incentive schemes to boost student performance.

Officials in Chicago have recently launched a financial incentive scheme that will give 5,000 students aged 14-15 the chance to earn up to US$2,000 in the first year of high school.

The Paper Project, created by the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University, aims to develop interest in school when students are most at risk of dropping out.

Eligible students in 20 schools, which are trialling the scheme, will receive half of their earnings every five weeks during their first two years, and the remaining sum on graduation from high school. If they fail a class, they lose their money, but can earn it back through catch-up work.


Photo credit: Getty

Original print headline: Bribery boosts exam results for poor students, study finds

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    3 May, 2013

    Pooky Hes

  • A double-edged sword unfortunately. We did this kind of thing a decade ago as the school was in a designated 'action-zone' due to social deprivation factors etc. Yes, Mc Donalds vouchers and cash incentives did work, at least short term, but it also had the effect of angering (to put it mildly) all those pupils who made efforts to tick all the boxes such as attendance/punctuality on a daily basis.......thus demotivating them. Great headlines in the papers though!

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    3 May, 2013

    One Horse Town

  • The majority of the teachers I speak to agree that bribery for results doesn’t work. It really is much more effective to reward instead for the steps taken to achieve good results. The most important thing is to ensure that pupils are given instant recognition of their achievements whether it is in the form of words or something more physical like stickers or the promise of a postcard home. Many of the teachers that use our behaviour management tools have tried offering expensive prizes, but decided that it is much more effective to offer incentives that money can’t buy like vouchers to jump the dinner queue or VIP Prom tickets - Neil Hodges, Managing Director,

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    8 May, 2013


  • It does not seem to occur to educators that motivators are basically the same for adults and children. After all few are likely to work at work without the bribe - money.

    There have always seemed to me to be three possible learner motivators:

    Money - but no one has any to spare
    Sex - will definitely work with boys but coupons for local hot house are unlikely to be an acceptable solution ...a kiss from Miss Foster the new trainee teacher maybe? - clearly this one is a none starter
    Time off and holidays -

    The last is an option particularly for older learners but management fears prevent its implementation. If students are managed correctly and if they are up-to-date and if they are independently and flexibly working from 'our' on line resources then why should this reward not be used? The use of modern technology supports exploring this option - the success of which is simply the (complex) issue of managing each student flexibly to (differentiation) meet there individual needs. Actually its not so difficult but requires clear thinking - and carefully piloting.

    In the early 2000's I was subjected to a number of nonsense staff development sessions on the importance of motivating students - the key I was told was 'quality resources'. It did not feel right to me. After some consideration I realized the problem; simply I would not be motivated to wash the car because I have been given a better bucket or sponge. Neither would I be motivated to do any of the other jobs I put off by given a quality resources to complete the task.

    'I can't be arsed' is a non-negotiable, absolute and the carrot is certainly not part of what the learner 'can't be arsed about.'.

    There is of course, another route. Accept that students will not learn with these attitudes and take them out of the curriculum to address the attitudes properly and individually. The attitude may come from past failure, lack of skills, undervaluing their skills or simply laziness. It is another strategy which is never tried.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    15 June, 2013


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