4th December 2009 at 00:00
A colleague promises his class a film if they complete their work, and it seems to succeed. Is it ever acceptable to use bribery in the classroom?

There seems to be a definition problem here. Namely, is a film a bribe or a reward?

At some point in their career, most teachers will allow pupils to relax in front of a film - either as a treat at the end of term or in recognition of good work. If a class can't be controlled without this kind of remuneration, you will need to re-think your behaviour management strategy; a "no film, no coursework" pupil attitude is obviously unacceptable.

But if a film simply recognises diligent or improving pupils once in a while, maybe it is not such a bad thing. "We should make sure the link between effort and reward is clear," says George Grima from loyalty company Vivo Miles, which enables pupils to build up points for good work or behaviour that they can exchange for prizes.

Acknowledging hard work does not amount to bribery, he insists. Rather, "it's about reinforcing positive behaviours and motivating pupils to reach their full potential," he says.

So if you want coursework to be completed on time, pupils need to know that their efforts will be recognised - either verbally or through some kind of reward.

"Achievement and acknowledgment of achievement promote interest in learning," Mr Grima adds. "When pupils are interested, they are engaged, and when pupils are engaged, they learn. If managed in the correct way with the right tools I certainly think rewards have a place in our schools."

However, you don't want to create a rod for your own back. If pupils expect a film every time they hand in coursework, the power balance will shift from you to them.

And what happens if films are no longer good enough? Will trips abroad do or will pupils take nothing short of hard cash in exchange for their coursework? Might they start to harass other teachers who don't offer any kind of reward?

These are all considerations that need to be taken into account before you reach for the remote control. It is also worth considering more educational incentives. Graeme Napier, an ICT teacher at Carr Hill High School in Preston, developed a new system of rewards and praise, which was hitherto inconsistent across the school, to sit alongside Carr Hill's existing system of "consequences".

Commendations, merits and awards were all introduced, in addition to verbal praise, plus postcards home for work that consistently exceeds expectations. Instead of feeling "wound up" and "frustrated" by reprimands and sanctions, the pupils said they were pleased their work was being acknowledged.

Ensuring the rewards were appropriate and age-sensitive was crucial, Mr Napier adds. "[Studies] found that secondary pupils found receiving public awards, such as merit badges in assembly, embarrassing and demeaning," he says. "They preferred less public methods, including letters of congratulation sent to parents and positive comments on their work in their reports."

So while the merits are used discreetly for key stage 4 pupils, they are mostly reserved for those in Years 7-9. By directing meaningful praise at individuals rather than the whole class - and by adopting a more positive approach to behaviour - Mr Napier says incidents of poor behaviour decreased by 52 per cent last year.

A DVD may also improve behaviour and act as a strong motivator, but it probably can't tick the formative feedback box or improve individual relationships between teachers and pupils. At worst, pupils may just look upon their teacher as a soft touch.

There is no need to drop the treats totally, but make them work harder for you. Eventually they will be grateful for a whole-school approach to rewards

Next week weapon in class


- Make sure you are not being bribed. A film should be a reward instigated by you, not a bargaining tool used by pupils.

- Ensure your practice is in keeping with the whole-school's behaviour policy concerning rewards and sanctions.

- Try alternatives. Awards and commendations may suffice and be more meaningful to individual pupils.


- Blackmail pupils with offers of rewards that can not be consistently applied throughout the year or the whole school.

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