Money doesn't talk when it comes to student behaviour

3rd October 2014 at 01:00
Incentives have little effect on pupil performance, study says

It is the perennial complaint of parents that their teenage children talk to them only to demand cash, but a new study has found that using financial incentives to motivate teenagers may be a waste of money.

The largest ever study of pupil incentives in Britain offered a cash reward of pound;160 per term to students who completed their work, behaved well and turned up for class. But this had no impact on GCSE grades, researchers found.

As Christmas loomed, the prospect of extra cash did make some Year 11 students work harder in class but had no impact on their overall results. The same was true when the prospect of an exciting school trip was used to encourage GCSE students to work harder.

More than 10,000 GCSE pupils in 63 schools took part in the randomised controlled trial by researchers at the universities of Bristol and Chicago, which also asked whether "loss aversion" motivated pupils to make more effort in the classroom.

In one part of the study, pupils were told they had pound;80 at the beginning of each half-term. They would lose pound;10 if their attendance or behaviour slipped and pound;30 if they did not produce classwork or homework of sufficient quality.

In another part of the trial, each pupil was given eight "tickets" at the start of each half-term and needed 12 to go on a trip at the end of term. Tickets were taken away if students fell behind on attendance, behaviour, classwork and homework.

University of Bristol academic Simon Burgess, who led the study, said his team had not found "the right buttons to push to increase effort and engagement".

He said: "Clearly some pupils have a lot of aspiration and believe that education is a way of getting what they want out of life. But there are kids who think that working hard doesn't make a difference, they think it's all in your genes or it's all down to background."

These pupils, he said, needed a "bridge" to help them understand the link between effort and result.

The findings come after a 2012 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed that about four out of five schools in England used some form of reward system, although the Bristol and Chicago study found that most preferred to offer trips and trophies rather than money.

George Grima, chief executive of the Vivo online rewards website for schools, said that only "a very few" of its 700 secondary members offered gifts rather than tokens such as certificates.

Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation charity, which funded the research, said the use of incentives could "appear attractive" to schools but that the direct impact on learning was "low".

Robert Campbell, principal of Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire, said he was not surprised by the results.

"I don't like it, I think it's wrong," he said. "To me, if you put in material rewards, you get effort that is commensurate with that reward. If you want people to improve their output by 10 per cent, there is an expectation that you'll pay them 10 per cent more. I can see that in the short-term it may work - `If you do this, you'll get pound;10' - but for GCSEs, which are longer-term projects, the motivation should come from within, from an intrinsic drive to better oneself."

Francis Gilbert, a secondary teacher and author of Yob Nation, said that schemes had to be handled carefully because of the reaction of children who failed to earn the rewards.

He said: "You are literally taking money off the students and I've had kids shouting in my face because of this. They want to know why you're not giving them their rewards, which could be equivalent to pound;10. It can be scary."

Instead, he opted for symbolic rewards such as medals and smiley faces, he said.

Some previous studies have found that giving children cash for test scores could improve grades, according to the evaluation of the project by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

`It is hard to turn back from that route'

Allan Foulds, head of Cheltenham Bournside School and Sixth-Form Centre, says that with material reward schemes there is a danger that the vital "human factor" could disappear.

His school celebrates effort and progress "of all shapes and sizes", he says, adding: "We report to parents and students four times a year because we know that personal recognition is a motivator. It enhances the relationship between students and teachers, and that promotes further progress."

He says: "We have considered financial rewards and spoken to our students about it. We have some qualms. One worry is that if you go down that route it is not easy to turn back.

"We want to build human and personal recognition, not give children money."

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