Peterborough pupil Alex Gordon has been rewarded with Amazon vouchers by Cambridgeshire Country Council after completing over 2300 consecutive days without absence; the entirety of his school career. It is a wonderful achievement and he should be commended for this. The financial gesture from the Local Authority has prompted some, however, to question if paying students to turn up should be back on the agenda!

I spoke to BBC Radio’s Paul Stainton this morning on “The Bigger Breakfast” and this is what I had to say.

To reward or not to reward?

Studies by those like Roland Fryers (2010) remind us that rewards only work if you target the incentive in the right way. His research revealed that short-term goal orientated approaches might work in that rewarding the inputs to education yielded great impacts than focusing on the long-term outputs. Put another way, giving students money to get 10 As is unlikely to work if the student doesn’t understand the steps needed to achieve that goal.

Yet, psychological ‘over justification theory’ calls into question rewards of any type. It proposes that when one ascribes a external incentive for something like “attending school” there is a very real danger that attendance (in and of itself) becomes valued merely for that reward. Psychologist Edward Deci, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester University in the US, studied the relationship between a conditioned financial reward and the completion of a specific task. Deci noted that withdrawal of the extrinsic reward (in this instance money) led to the disinclination of the student to continue with a simple puzzle. The students who had not been paid (and relied on their own intrinsic motivation) continued to show an attentiveness  in the puzzles.

Weiner, like Deci, suggests the power (both positive and negative) of attributional behaviours; if an individual attributes their behaviour to an extrinsic reward so that individual becomes less inclined to participate in that very activity without reward being offered.

The Real Problem…

Whilst some studies reveal short-term gains of extrinsic reward, they tend to have limited impact on two cohorts of students: first those who are unwell. Parents on sites like Mumsnet complain vociferously that prizes for attendance,  ‘basically [reward] immune systems’! The second constituent is the hardcore truant: rewarding attendance neither demonstrates great gains in attendance nor deals with the issue of mental absenteeism; that is getting them to ‘attend’ whilst they are attending.


What the Relational School Project has found:

Alex Gorman pointed to two key determining factors in his success this morning. Set aside his cast iron gut (and let’s be clear, as immune systems go, this lad clearly has one of the best!), Alex pointed to;

  1. the support of the network around him, noting that he “couldn’t have done this without [his] friends and the support of the home environment;
  2. the intrinsic desire to be at school; Alex’s mum highlighted that day in and day out “he [Alex] wanted to go.”

The love of school flows, we find, from the relationships you build. The stronger they are, the greater your desire to engage. We know that students are more likely to blame the breakdown in relationships with peers and practitioners than “home circumstances” when explaining why they stay away. We know that parents say the same as, “they cited bullying, problems with the teachers and the influence of friends as the main factors” in students absenting themselves (McCormack, 2005).

And whilst most parents think education is valuable, there is a correlation between poor attendance and the education experiences of those who bring those students up. We should not assume because many value the importance of education, all share in the vision. Indeed, in an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society we should expect the inevitable diversity of views about the value and purpose of education.

How to engage with the issue?

If the underlying issue of attendance is relational, then the answer is to be found in the strengthening of such relationships. At the relational schools project, we engage with parents in the hardest to reach communities, getting them in the door (sometimes for the first time) and building consensus around the issues. Penalising parents seems, conversely, to drive an ever-increasing wedge between home and school.

We engage with the student community and work with them to rebuild relationships one to another.

Positive peer to peer relationships also impact on a student’s academic and non-academic performance in secondary education. Positive peer interaction correlates well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. We are working with schools to better understand and promote positive relationships within the class, year group and in the school community more broadly, encouraging fellow pupils to treat each other with greater respect.

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