EEF Blog: Cash for grades? Findings from the UK’S largest ever trial on the use of incentives

Dr Kevan Collins discusses the findings from the latest batch of EEF reports.

How much is an A* worth these days? The effectiveness of ‘bribing’ students to get good results is a perennial story during the August GCSE and A-level results period. According to the Daily Telegraph some A-level students were being offered up to £2,000 for top results this year. And in 2013 The Independent reported that two-thirds of parents had offered incentives to children taking GCSEs with a third offering cash for grades.

It’s an issue that divides parents and educationalists. Should we be offering students financial incentives to work harder or to achieve better grades? Is it morally right and is it effective?

There’s been a significant amount of research into the use of incentives in the US, some of it championed by John Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame. It’s also an idea that schools have picked up on in the UK. In a small scale survey of the 33 schools that responded, 18 said they used incentive systems to improve pupils’ attainments. All but one used non-financial incentives like trophies or trips.

At the Education Endowment Foundation we investigate the strategies schools use to improve their students’ attainment. We use independent evaluators to assess whether these methods really make a difference, with a focus on their impact on pupils eligible for free school meals.

Despite the fact that some schools are using incentives to improve results there hasn’t yet been much research into how effective it is on this side of the Atlantic. US studies have also tended to focus on incentives to improve results. However, it’s well known that long-term rewards have less impact than those experienced more immediately, so we decided to test incentives to improve effort, rather than results.

We funded the largest ever British randomised controlled trial looking at the impact of different types of incentives on pupils’ attainment, involving over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools. The trial was based on work at Bristol University on the theory of loss aversion – the idea individuals are more motivated to retain something they already have, than to strive to achieve something they will receive in the future.

Researchers from Bristol University and Chicago University 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.

So what did it find? There was no significant overall impact on GCSE results from either the trips or the financial incentives on English, maths or science results. There was some improvement in approaches to classwork, but this didn’t translate into significantly better results in any of the subjects measured. The findings seem counterintuitive: when pupils put in more effort, shouldn’t it automatically result in higher grades?

At the EEF our aim is to narrow the attainment gap between students eligible for free school meals and their peers, so we were particularly interested to see the results for this group. The evaluation found that neither type of incentive had a significant positive impact on pupils eligible for free school meals.

That’s not to say that incentives had no impact. Pupils with low prior attainment did seem to benefit from the trip incentives, improving their maths scores by two months’ extra progress in learning on average.

So what can schools take from this? The main message seems to be that there are more effective methods for raising the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals than offering them financial or other incentives. The effort and cost of running incentive schemes seems to run counter to impact that they have. As a quick look at theEEF/Sutton Trust Toolkit demonstrates, investing in high quality one to one tutoring or improving feedback will have significantly more impact, even if they are more intensive and time consuming to administer. But perhaps more importantly, schools should try to understand the relationship between the effort that pupils demonstrate and their attainment. This trial shows that translating effort into grades is more complex than providing a simple incentive scheme.