Research costing £1.6m has concluded that cash incentives offered to pupils make no significant improvement in GCSE results.
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research did though find that the prospect of a school trip could help encourage pupils with low attainment to do better in maths.
A group of year 11 pupils involved in the research were promised a cash incentive of £80 at the beginning of each half term, with £10 knocked off if their attendance or behaviour was not up to standard, and £30 taken away if they underperformed in their classwork or homework.
The research found that while there was some improvement in classwork effort as a result of the financial incentive, this did not translate into a statistically significant improvement in GCSE attainment in maths, English or science.
A second group of pupils were given tokens that granted them entitlement to attend an end of term trip, with tokens lost if attendance, behaviour or classwork were below expectations.
Researchers saw no overall improvement in GCSE performance using this incentive, however there was an improvement in maths test scores for pupils with low prior attainment. On average, the pupils made two additional months’ progress.
James Richardson, a senior analyst with the EEF, which commissioned the study, said that it helped fill a gap in current knowledge about the impact of incentives on pupils’ behaviour.
“We recognise that incentives in various forms are prevalent in schools – trips and events are the most obvious ones – so it’s important to know if they are effective.”
Mr Richardson said there was evidence that incentives could make a difference – much of which came from America – but that the EEF had wanted to explore directly how incentives affected the level of effort which children put into their studies.
“Most of the evidence from America pays pupils directly for positive effects for test scores. In this one, we didn’t pay for results, we paid for improved effort,” Mr Richardson said.
“I think what’s interesting about this is that in some cases the effort increased, yet this didn’t necessarily translate into higher attainment.”
Mr Richardson said that more research was needed on the link between effort and achievement, while the report also calls for further research to be carried out looking at the level of incentive required to induce pupil effort, and the long-term impact of such schemes.
The ‘loss-aversion’ research – Increasing Pupil Motivation – was the largest ever randomised controlled trial of pupil incentives carried out in Britain, involving over 10,000 students at 63 schools, and carried out by academics from Bristol University and the University of Chicago.
The trial began in 2012, and was independently evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “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.”