Do school incentives help children learn?

Art goodies in child's backpack
We all want to help children learn, but does offering incentives help them to reach their potential? And is it completely ethical?

Ever since Ofsted was created to scrutinise schools, teachers all over Britain have been raising the stakes in an effort to motivate pupils to achieve top grades and meet tough Government targets. Prizes such as computers, iPods, cinema tickets, BMXs and trips to watch premiership football are examples of some of the incentive packages pupils can expect to win if they gain top scores in their exams. There are also the Government incentives of money for older pupils who stay on in school plus bonuses for good reports and attendance.

Do incentives help children learn?

Some educators question such practices while others view them as positive investment in school children’s futures. One teacher, who has mixed views on this, is Andrew Asante of Furze Platt Secondary School in Berkshire. He describes the practice as ‘dangling financial carrots’ and he thinks perhaps the money would be better spent in other ways. “More money should go into engaging non-academic pupils in more practical work,” says Andrew. “When you start to introduce pupils to other areas that do not fit into the traditional educational frameworks of SATs, GCSEs and A levels they are seen as failures, which is absurd. I believe that it’s more important that the Government use the financial incentive packages to create a multi-pronged education system.”

Are incentives bribes?

Wendy Petrie a mother and secondary school teacher, who now runs an independent school in south London, believes that incentives are a good idea as long as they don’t become bribes. “In all of this you need to be careful that kids don’t end up seeing learning as a way of getting stuff they want,” she says.
“Incentives are a good idea, but I think small incentives are more effective, for example, a trip to the park, merit stars, days out and so forth. If the incentives are too large this will be a child's only motive and they will not want to work just for themselves.”

“Personally I think lots of praise and encouragement from teachers, but more importantly, parents, is enough. I'm not sure if pupils really care about the material rewards anyway; I think they are more interested in what their parents think of their performances,” she adds.

Ability and drive

Psychologist, Michelle David, also has mixed views, although in principle she thinks incentives are not a bad idea. “I'm a big believer in rewarding children’s efforts to behave better and to achieve more, and if it benefits children to achieve better grades then it is worth it,” she says.

But what about children who may have learning difficulties – they will feel that they have lost before they have even started because there will be other children brighter than they are who will most likely walk off with the prize money.

There is a danger that average ability children may always feel the need to be competitive whereas high IQ children may feel the need to play down their ability to fit in with everyone else. So in some instances positive encouragement – rather than physical rewards – may be better.