Cash incentives make no difference to GCSE results, but promise of an outing can boost maths for low

Cash incentives lead to no significant improvement in GCSE results, according to an Education Endowment Foundation trial on the impact of incentives in schools, but the prospect of an outing or a school trip may encourage low-attaining pupils to do better in maths.

The largest ever British randomised controlled trial of pupil incentives involved over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools. The projects was led by researchers from Bristol University and the University of Chicago and independently evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The researchers ran two schemes with Year 11 pupils studying for GCSEs in English, maths and science. In the first, pupils were told they had £80 at the beginning of each half-term and they would lose £10 if they didn’t do well enough in their attendance or behaviour, and £30 if they underperformed on their classwork or homework.

In the second, pupils were promised a trip or an outing to an event. Each pupil was given eight tickets at the start of each half term. Tickets were taken away for failures to work hard enough on those same four measures (attendance, behaviour, classwork and homework). Pupils needed 12 tickets at the end of a full term to join the trip. A third group of schools offered neither set of new incentives, but acted as the trial control group.

The trial found no significant overall impact on GCSE results from either set of incentives on English, maths or science. There was some improvement in classwork, but this did not translate into significantly better results in the three subjects measured. Neither incentive had a significant positive impact on students eligible for free school meals.

However, the trip incentives appeared to be more effective for pupils with low prior attainment and their maths test scores improved. The finding was statistically significant for these pupils in the schools where a trip or outing was promised. They gained two months’ extra progress in learning on average.

The trial drew on the theory of ‘loss aversion’ which has suggested that people are more likely to respond positively when they are likely to lose money or promised activities, rather than being offered a prize at the end of the process.

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“The use of incentives in schools is not a new idea and can appear attractive to schools and parents who are trying to motivate their children. The study suggests that while incentives can increase effort in the classroom, their direct impact on learning is low. “

“It is vital that we rigorously evaluate ideas like this, so that we know what does and does not make a difference, especially for poorer pupils. While incentives may change surface behaviours, what really makes the difference is how students are taught. The best evidence currently available suggests that the most powerful driver of achievement in schools is great teaching, particularly for students from low-income families.”

Other research published today by the EEF includes evaluations of six other projects, including two that use reading for pleasure to try and improve literacy results.


1.The EEF was founded in 2011 by the education charity the Sutton Trust, as lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust (now Impetus-PEF). The EEF received a founding grant of £125m grant from the Department for Education. It is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £47 million to 87 projects working with over 550,000 pupils in over 4000 schools across England.

2.The Improving Pupil Motivation trial involved 10,313 pupils at 63 schools nationwide. The project was developed by academics from Bristol University and the University of Chicago and led by Professor Simon Burgess. The £1.6 million trial ran for four half-terms from autumn 2012 until Easter 2013and was independently evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. For information about the evaluation methodology please contact Bonnie Brimstone at the IFS press office on 020 7291 4800 / 07730 667013,

A copy of the full report and the other research published today are available here.