Does bribery result in better behaviour?

12th July 2013 at 01:00
Incentives remain popular among teachers, despite suggestions that they can limit students' motivation and ambition

When David Day took up his post as principal of the Isle of Sheppey Academy, a clear behaviour policy was in place: students were bribed to behave.

The South of England school subscribed to the Vivo Miles scheme, a widely used web-based rewards programme that allows well-behaved students to collect credits towards prizes such as iPods, computer games or bicycles. At Day's school, students were able to spend their reward points on the local high street. The intention was that local businesses would receive support and recalcitrant teenagers would receive tangible rewards for their good behaviour.

Educational bribery has a long history, stretching back past public-school house points for neat handwriting, through to sweets in exchange for perfect spelling tests or correctly memorised times tables.

Bribery for good behaviour has just as strong a history of usage, and academic research has proved that bribing students to behave well can be an effective way to guarantee the smooth, infraction-free running of a school.

Professor Stephen Gorard, of Durham University in northeast England, reviewed more than 165,000 research studies and journal articles to find the best method for improving students' grades and motivation. Several studies looked at the effects of financial rewards in exchange for good behaviour.

In one large-scale study, a sum of $200 (pound;132) was put aside for each student. Every time a student failed to meet various behavioural or academic goals - attending school, reading a required book, handing in homework on time - money was docked from the overall total. The result was improved behaviour and academic grades.

"In general, young people know what's expected of them," Gorard says. "They just don't do it. But if somebody said, `I'll double your salary if you get into work at 8.30 each morning', I could be in work at 8.30 each morning."

Yet when school inspectors visited Day's school in December 2011, they found that students had not, in fact, risen to the capitalist challenge. Instead, levels of exclusions were high and there was widespread lack of motivation.

Phil Beadle, a UK educational consultant and co-author of behaviour management guide Why Are You Shouting At Us?, is unsurprised by this. "When students accumulate tokens for minor pieces of good or conformist behaviour, and that eventually qualifies them for a bicycle or a scooter, it trivialises the reason the kids are there," he says.

"Decent behaviour is the minimum expectation for learning. It should be culturally entrenched. Children are at school to acquire skills, knowledge and understanding. That knowledge should be its own intrinsic reward. The idea of throwing a fiver at the problem really does cheapen the function of education."

Gorard acknowledges that there are limits to his research findings. "None of the studies looks at the longer-term effects for society," he says. "You might actually be damaging these pupils' long-term motivation. And there's nothing about the problem of resentment in those people who are already behaving well."

Beadle adds that another long-term issue may be ambition. "If your goal is to be good at something, then you will work hard and produce the best outcome for you," he says. "If your goal is a reward, you will do only the minimum for that reward. If you're focused on the work, and your goal is mastery of it, you don't stop at the point where you get the reward. If you're looking for internal rewards, you become a lifelong learner. If you're looking for extrinsic rewards, you become a wage slave."

Unsurprisingly, Imogen O'Rorke of Vivo Miles disagrees with the criticisms, insisting that rewarding good behaviour is an effective tool for teachers. Of 500 schools using the scheme, she says that 93 per cent have reported an improvement in behaviour since its adoption.

"It's a virtuous circle of learning," she says. "When kids get into good habits and are rewarded, they start to feel better about themselves. It improves self-esteem, it improves their relationships with teachers, it improves performance."

That may be, but since the Vivo Miles scheme was abandoned at the Isle of Sheppey Academy, the school has had two inspections. Both confirmed an improvement in student behaviour.

The change has led Day to renounce his former support for bribery for good behaviour, despite the evidence of Vivo Miles and Gorard, and he urges others to follow his lead.

"Let's not beat about the bush," Day says. "The key to improving behaviour in schools is often improving teaching and learning. Values and principles can't be bought."


Read a report from the first Scottish school to use Vivo Miles bit.lyRewardHardWork

Find a report on a school reward card scheme here: bit.lyAirMilesScheme


  • Schemes such as Vivo Miles aim to reward good behaviour with prizes - in essence, bribing students to keep on the straight and narrow.
  • The evidence that this works is plentiful, with studies finding that incentivising students results in good behaviour.
  • However, some argue that this method trivialises education and can leave students unable to seek internal reward. It can have long-term impacts - limiting ambition, for example - because students will only do the minimum to gain a reward.
  • Rewarding the good behaviour of normally misbehaving students can also lead to resentment among those students that always behave.
    • Photo credit: Getty


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