Could cash rewards improve GCSE results for low achievers?

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In a recent discussion paper published by the University of Bristol, low-achieving students were found to perform better than predicted in their GCSE examinations after being offered incentives.


Simon Burgess, Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), led the project, which included more than 10,000 Year 11 students across 63 schools.


Schools were selected from amongst the poorest neighbourhoods in England, then randomly sorted into one of the following treatment groups: financial incentives, non-financial incentives, or into the control group. Depending on their attendance, conduct and schoolwork, schools in the incentive treatment groups would reward students every half-term (in the financial group this reward was up to £80 cash, whereas in the non-financial group this could be any number of things decided upon between the students and school – for example, trips to theme parks or sport events).


The researcher’s hypothesis was that students in the incentive groups would display increased levels of engagement and learning throughout term time, and that this improvement would be reflected in their GCSE results at the end of the year (despite students not being “incentivised” by their GCSE results in the same manner).


The overall effect of the experiment was low – analysing the average level of improvement across schools, the incentive schools performed better than the control group, but this was statistically insignificant.


However, the improvement was more significant accounting only for students with low predicted GCSE grades, who received better marks than their non-reward counterparts in the control group.


The results seem to show that lower-performing students stand to improve the most from an incentive-based reward scheme, whereas students already making an effort and expected to do well are less affected. 

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