Could paying students to work harder help boost GCSE grades?

As new research suggests the use of financial rewards could raise the attainment of certain groups of students, Irena Baker speaks to the academic behind the study
13th May 2022, 4:27pm
Paying, Students, GCSE, work
Irena Barker


Could paying students to work harder help boost GCSE grades?

Much research has been carried out into whether offering cash and other incentives makes teachers more effective, and the results have been mixed.

But what about pupils? Could offering them rewards if they work harder at school actually raise their GCSE grades?

As schools and psychologists talk increasingly about the importance of intrinsic motivation and "raising aspirations", it is potentially a controversial issue.

But research published in December last year, in which Year 11 pupils were paid to make a greater effort in school, has revealed some encouraging findings. 

It could even make decision-makers more likely to consider the use of financial rewards to raise the attainment of certain groups of students.

Here, Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol, who led the team that carried out the randomised control trial, discusses the findings and the wider implications.

Tes: Why did you decide to look into the effects of offering financial rewards for pupil effort?

Simon Burgess: So much of the existing research [into raising attainment] is about schools, school resources, teachers…but I wanted to look at the role of students. Obviously, student effort matters, but does it just matter a little bit? Or does it matter a lot? I was interested to answer that question.

There are groups of students who, if you look at the national statistics on GCSEs, are really struggling, so we need to do something to help those students...they're struggling with a lot of factors affecting their work and maybe, for perfectly sensible reasons, they are demotivated.

The use of incentives for these students seemed to be an area worth exploring.

Is this area well-researched?

There's a lot of work on incentives for teachers and less work on incentives for pupils but, typically, those studies look at outputs (grades) rather than inputs (pupil effort).

The evidence is that it is not terribly effective to offer pupils rewards for outputs. That's probably because a lot of whether you get an A* in maths or not is down to your family background, the teachers in front of you and the resources the school has.

But the thing that the pupils can control is whether or not they work hard. You should always have incentives for things people know how to do and that they can manage. It's pointless paying me a million pounds to make a car, for example, because I have no idea how to make a car.

What form did the experiment take?

The study involved 10,000 Year 11 students in 63 schools in deprived areas of England. One group of students was financially rewarded for their effort in English, maths and science while another group was offered the reward of a high-value outing with friends. The third group was the control group.

In our experiment, we had four dimensions that were rewarded: turning up at school every day, behaving in class and completing homework and classwork on time to a reasonable standard.

The pupils who were paid received up to £80 per half term for hitting these thresholds through the year.

What did you find?

On average, there was a small positive impact of incentives for effort on GCSE grades but for half of the students, there was a meaningful positive effect.

The thing that struck me was that the effect is very different between different groups of students. There were some students for whom incentives had no effect at all: they were the high-performing kids. They hit all their thresholds, they were hardworking. This scheme was just a dream for them because they could carry on doing what they were doing and earn a lot of money, but we didn't shift their GCSEs at all.

Another group of kids were low performers - they hit some of their targets but not all of them, so they earned less than the first group, but they earned some money, they improved and we shifted their GCSE scores a lot in maths and science.

Our analysis also showed that economically disadvantaged native English speakers were more likely to be highly responsive.

Could offering incentives help to close the so-called 'attainment gap' then?

There's this very large attainment gap between children from disadvantaged families and children from not disadvantaged families.

Our study shows that incentives have powerful positive effects on GCSE scores for many pupils, wiping out about half of the disadvantage attainment gap in secondary schools.

You also included a school trip as one of the incentives, did that have an effect on GCSE scores?

The idea was that 15- to 16-year-olds love their friends more than they love anybody, so it was kind of leveraging those friendship networks.

In the findings, it mattered to a degree. It mattered less than the financial incentives, but there was certainly something there.

So, what can schools take from this? Could they start paying some children to come to school?

Incentives for pupils are not at all unheard of, so, yes, schools absolutely could do this. But it would have to be done very carefully. I very strongly think that having this for some kids in a school and not for others would be awful, and extremely divisive.

Even if you ran it in some schools and not others, there is the potential for it to be divisive. It might have to be done at city or local authority level for it to be seen as fair.

It's difficult because the most responsive groups are likely to be correlated with socioeconomic status. But this then overlaps with other factors, such as ethnicity - and the idea that you could have a scheme that was, for example, only for white British kids [because they are the disadvantaged group in a particular area] is just a non-starter and not something that anybody would want to do.

But if you take the places that are really struggling with their GCSEs - Knowsley, for instance, which is an area that has a predominantly white British demographic - there might be an expectation that it might work quite well there.

We want to do something to help the groups that are struggling, but we have to do it in a way that is fair and equitable.

Why do you think some children responded so well to financial incentives?

I'm an economist, so I know that incentives are important. I think for a lot of students, the pathway from working hard in school to getting a better job and a nicer life already makes a lot of sense.

But if you're struggling, then you may not see that for any number of reasons. You may believe that your effort doesn't matter. You may believe that, however hard you work, the teachers in front of you are not going to help, or you're not going to get support at home or there won't be any jobs, or the jobs available are not for people like you.

All those things can stop you from seeing that inherent incentive. I think trying to provide a bridge to get people over, to encourage them to work hard, to get them slightly better GCSEs, is a valuable thing.

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