Bribing teenagers with cash does not improve their GCSE results

Roger Titcombe's picture
This interesting story appeared in the Independent of 3 October 2014.

"Bribing teenagers with cash to encourage them to work harder in their studies with the aim of gaining better grades does not improve their GCSE results, according to new research. The findings will come as a disappointment to parents who last year spent an estimated £4.2 million on cash incentives in an attempt to get their offspring to push themselves – and cast further doubt on controversial schemes introduced at some schools to offer pupils cash rewards. Researchers from Bristol University and the University of Chicago, who set up the large-scale trial of pupil incentives, concluded that parents and schools would do better to save their money and take struggling students on a day out instead."

Attempting to change behaviour through rewards and punishments is pure behaviourism.

Readers of my posts and comments will be well aware of my view that Academisation and marketisation of our schools have lowered standards by substituting 'quick fix', exam-focussed teaching for the 'slow learning', cognitive development focussed teaching that leads to deep learning. See here, here and here for more information.

So why don't bribes improve GCSE results? This is what the researchers concluded:

“The study suggests that while incentives can increase effort in the classroom, their direct impact on learning is low,” said Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. “While incentives may change surface behaviours, what really makes the difference is how students are taught.”

I would put it like this. There is no doubt that punishments and rewards can change human behaviour. School pupils can be motivated by bribes and punishments to improve their attendance, homework completion and work rate, but this is not enough to get them to understand stuff they find confusing and difficult.

Learning and remembering reinforced by drill and practise, do not result in personal concept modification. This needs the slow, carefully designed approach of developmentalists like Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. You can't bribe a pupil into understanding something they just don't 'get'.

What is interesting is that the researchers found that, unlike bribes, 'school trips' apparently did bring about measurable improvements in exam performance in maths, even when the trip had nothing to do with maths.

This could be interpreted as 'school trips' being a 'bigger carrot' than a bribe, which is still a behaviourist explanation.

My explanation is different. I believe that understanding 'hard stuff', first requires the plastic general intelligence of learners to be sufficiently developed. Where this takes place then more sophisticated personal concepts can be built. This is general and not context specific. Thus a trip to the Natural History Museum involving deep immersion in Darwinian Natural Selection could help a KS4 pupil understand quadratic equations.

This is obviously a gross over-simplification, but that is the idea. So if schools want their students to get better maths grades then there should be more school trips. Sounds good to me. However what is really needed is a complete review of the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning.


It is not going to happen so long as our education system is driven by the ideology of marketisation.

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Andy V's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 14:07

All that said, let us be absolutely clear about the article in the independent. It was not implying or inferring that schools were participating in "bribes" but rather that parental "bribes" don't work. It was perhaps a tad misguided for the author to bring together two strands together regarding encouraging pupils to do well. That is to say, parental inducements v the apparent impact of school trips. The former is singularly targeted on a son or daughter whereas the latter are a standard feature of school life and are open to all pupils dependent on the type of trip (e.g. end of year or subject specific).

The journalist has also appeared to slip into the pitfall of correlation v causation, and offers no research data to indicate whether the trips are the cause / result of increased performance nor whether the type of trip makes a difference.

At a personal level, I offered inducements to my children but on the more traditional basis of payment/reward based on results. The independent article strongly implies that parents who reward in advance of the results are the ones wasting their money. Thus it doesn't take parental classes in rocket science to reverse the situation.

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 15:30

Relying on a journalist for information isn't the best ermm.. learning methodology. This is EEF research (RCTs) of the incentive approaches to rewarding effort in schools.


Michele -Lowe's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 14:37

I don't know about the research - rigorously carried out or not - but my own experience of going on trips and taking kids on trips tells me that they are an intellectual stimulus. I addition, you're saying to the kids that they are worth all the time and hassle of organising such trips. I'd be interested in any research into this area.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 15:55

According to this old Telegraph article it is not just school trips that are beneficial but all sorts of extra-curricular activities.

In my school we had a partnership with a local (Lake District) Outdoor Education Provider funded by the Education Action Zone (remember those?). We also took part in Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes. The rationale was that all these things involved personal challenge and that was the beneficial feature. I am of the view that all such challenges engage the mind as well as the body. Maybe cross-over benefits are not just WITHIN the cognitive OR physical activity domains in terms of personal but that a degree of overlapping development can result. As Andy points out, correlations are not proof of causations, as we know from the many spurious claims that have been made for the success of Academies.

I too tried to find the reference for the Independent article so far without success, but this also brought me to the Education Endowment Foundation which does publish research in its 'What Works' format. Francis Gilbert has posted about this.

The results might not have been what the Bristol and Chicago university departments were hoping for. I am sure that the EEF is right - it is not how much effort that counts, but what kind of effort it is.

PiqueABoo's picture
Sun, 05/10/2014 - 18:43

I believe the EEF paid for it and the full report of the study is here:

Their definition of 'effort' isn't quite the intellectual endeavour type I was hoping for and I think 'compliance' might be a better word, perhaps preceded by 'Ofsted'. Yet another example of the 'measuring what can be measured' problem. Also yet another example of people being a bit careless with what they say i.e. when talking to the media the EEF don't appear to have taken much trouble to distinguish between the disadvantaged subset they're interested in and all children.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 10:06

I'd be interested to know what you would put in place to substitute the four components of the EFF 'effort' description?

Have to say, that I'm unsure quite how and where Ofsted creeps into the topic?

Underlying all of this is the old chestnut: are extrinsic rewards more motivationally effective than the personal intrinsic reward and esteem uplift to be had from demonstrating progress and achievement (and deepening knowledge and understanding)?

PiqueABoo's picture
Tue, 07/10/2014 - 19:07

We obviously can't measure my kind of effort.

I'm complaining about common words being hijacked for a very specific context and then being casually or dishonestly thrown around in public without that particular meaning attached ("potential" is another fine example in the education world). Ditto for overlooking an important qualifier e.g. that "disadvantaged". Ofsted featured because if you want to be "Outstanding" then you have to tick a series of boxes and the version of effort in this scenario ticks the same boxes: Attendance, Behaviour, Progress (in terms of meeting targets) etc.

jennyquestions's picture
Sun, 05/10/2014 - 18:29

Good grades during the exam season should be the happy outcome of a thriving school that offers many different experiences to its pupils. A narrow focus on exam results - as an end in itself - is cynical and leads to a dull kind of teaching. Here is a refreshing attitude towards exams:

Andy V's picture
Wed, 08/10/2014 - 13:11

Thank you for the additional input.

It would have been interesting to explore further your "kind of effort" in relation to that used by the EFF in their research but if you can't describe your definition of effort then that's that.

Not sure I can agree your use of a tick box approach to Ofsted inspection grades either. In this regard I gently but nonetheless sincerely suggest you read the full section 5 inspection handbook. It is really quite enlightening.

PiqueABoo's picture
Wed, 08/10/2014 - 21:11

Thanks for the advice, but I've read far too much Ofsted and a long SLT-friendly document written by school advisors who have done the training on this term's box-ticking. However that comment was really rooted in several HT-to-governor reports for my daughter's very ambitious "Good" school which explicitly tags critical sections as "OFSTED IMPORTANT". The first with that tag is of course Attendance (must get that 95% because that's what it says in some document pointing out what Outstanding schools are like), the next is Behaviour...

I had a prior interest in how effort might be determined in schools because we hear so much about Dweckian mindsets in education circles these days i.e. in typical educational dichotomy mode 'fixed mindset' praise of achievement is now completely out and 'growth mindset' praise of effort is completely in. My definition of effort: whatever people on that band-wagon can fairly determine and praise without generating cynicism in lots of children, most of whom stop taking adult praise at face-value around the age of eight.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/10/2014 - 10:10

I’m not sure where the school advisors went for their Ofsted update on the Sep 14 changes but do not recognise any reference to achieving a higher than national average percentage for attendance. It also needs to be recognised that the overall grade arising from a S5 inspection is rooted in evidencing how a school performs over a raft of areas. A perusal of the Sept 14 handbook identifies the following references to attendance:

Grade Descriptors for all sections carry the following comment:

“Note: These descriptors should not be used as a checklist. They must be applied adopting a ‘best fit’ approach that relies on the professional judgement of the inspection team. “

P. 6, para 4:
data from RAISEonline, including attendance and exclusions, the school data dashboard, the sixth form performance and assessment (PANDA) report, the Level 3 Value Added (L3VA) data and available data about success rates, and progress in English and mathematics

P. 14, para 30:
up-to-date attendance records

P. 54, para 174:
overall and persistent absence and attendance rates for different groups; inspectors should compare the school’s data on attendance against the national figures for all pupils and, when considering whether attendance is consistently low, should compare it with figures for the lowest 10% of schools (in 2012/13, 93.72% in primary schools and 92.46% in secondary schools)
punctuality over time in arriving at school and at lessons
the impact of the school’s strategies to improve behaviour and attendance

I share your sense of frustration regarding the unending diet of fads and fancies that sweep through education and often trigger the classic 'baby and bathwater' effect. For example, I was never and still am not a fan or supporter of the power praising strategy but I firmly believe that knowing ones pupils and tailoring how you recognise their effort/improvement/progress is a key to building and reinforcing their confidence and self-esteem. Over the years I have come to question/wrestle with the topic of rewards. That is to say, extrinsic v intrinsic. There is a link here to Ms Dweck and surprisingly SMW, insofar as their focus is about expectations and strategies to support pupils recognising and building their self-awareness and confidence in their abilities: progress and achievement for all. That said, knowing ones pupils and personalising how to recognised, acknowledge and affirm their work is pivotal (e.g. some thrive on a more open acknowledgement while others thrive on a quiet recognition).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/10/2014 - 12:19

PiqueABoo - I suspect I agree with you about this. As an anti-behaviourist I have always thought the power of praise to be overvalued. I have always hated the idea of an annual school prize day - the last act of which, after all the glittering prizes that reflect so well on the school and its head, is usually to award some poor little sod in Set 4 'The Headmaster's (or Chair of Governor's) Special Award for Effort and Progress).

You are right that children see through the 'praise' agenda of adults at a fairly young age. I think pupils are more positively helped through teacher's displays of honesty, integrity, fairness, wisdom, genuine interest, care, helpfulness, encouragement and generally being a good teacher in all sorts of ways.

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