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 (pound;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."
IT PAYS TO STUDY
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.
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Original print headline: Bribery boosts exam results for poor students, study finds