US expert: 'Why not pay poor pupils by results?'

12th June 2009 at 01:00

A leading US academic believes paying disadvantaged pupils for good exam results could work in the UK. He has been in talks with 10 Downing Street and the Conservatives about the idea.

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist, is behind an experiment in New York, Washington DC and Chicago where 13-year-olds are paid up to $500 (Pounds 304) if they do well in examinations.

Visiting London this week, he spoke to government and opposition advisers about the idea and other schemes to raise achievement, such as lengthening the school day.

But it was Professor Fryer's visit to St Paul's Way Community School in east London that made him think payment by results could work for British pupils.

"A lot of the kids I talked to were not sure that education was a good investment, and in America it was the same story," he said. "But even if they don't buy that, it's a good investment in the long term."

A US newspaper survey this week suggested the scheme had boosted results among pupils in New York by up to 40 percentage points. But Professor Fryer said a full evaluation was needed before it could be declared a success. If it does work, he said, it could be cheaper than other policies, such as reducing class sizes.

Professor Fryer - identified this year by Time magazine as one of the world's most influential thinkers - was in the UK to help the Equality and Human Rights Commission launch a report on the education of 14 to 18-year-olds.

Trevor Phillips, the commission's chair, said: "If the results of the US study find an improvement in the performance of disadvantaged students being paid for taking part and achieving academically, it would certainly be something that would need to be seriously considered here in Britain."

The commission is calling for the Government to increase education maintenance allowances, which provide 16 to 18-year-olds from low-income families with up to Pounds 30 a week to stay in education. Its survey of 1,000 14 to 18-year-olds found that 10 per cent were considering dropping out. The research also revealed that 46 per cent of girls from low socio-economic backgrounds feared failure at school, compared with just 28 per cent of middle-class boys.

Anxiety about failure was also an issue for 43 per cent of ethnic minority pupils and more than half of young people with disabilities.

Girls' attitudes to career choice remained traditional, the survey found. Regardless of social background, the top three jobs girls believed they would do were teaching, childcare and beauty. Four times more boys than girls believed they would go into engineering.

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