A school not a million miles away from me has begun to reward children for completing their homework. The system works like this: if all the children do their homework and hand it in on time then they all get little packs of haribos, if they don’t the children who ‘let the class down’ get named and shamed and no-one gets haribos. I call it the bullies’ charter. What messages are being given here? One: the teachers have no confidence in their own teaching ability. Two: haribos are something to be celebrated. Three: The whole class will impose rules better than the teachers. I could go on…
There are schools who use the reward system in more individualised ways. David Didau writes here about his visit to King Solomon Academy: “They use a payslip system where every pupil gets £15 a pay just for turning up. If they still have £75 at the end of the week they can take part in Friday afternoon enrichment, if not they’re in detention all afternoon. A merit is worth £2 and if pupils get a demerit, £2 is deducted from their account. An average balance of £100 or more entitles pupils to attend a week-long residential at the end of the year. (NB – this is not real money.)” Despite it not being ‘real money’ they use the language of money and you can buy rewards if you have kept your money and if you are ‘poorer’ you are punished. I could see a role for Wonga here, now that they are having problems in the real world perhaps they could go into schools and offer friday ‘payday’ loans of pretend money so that pupils may be enriched rather than detained. Personally, I’d like to take my cash and go home early.
These are two examples of performance related pay and punishment. In both cases the idea that education is its own reward has been rejected. Instead we have the unseemly utilitarian approach that work ‘hard’ (do as you’re told) = get stuff or don’t get stuff. Even if this worked would it be right? King Solomon Academy will point to their excellent exam results and say, maybe, that it does. According to recent research perhaps it doesn’t: “Offering rewards such as cash payments or free trips make pupils work harder in class but fail to improve their exam results, according to an intensive £1.6m study involving 10,000 children.” The Professor who helped design the study Simon Burgess of Bristol University said: “I was very disappointed with these results. I thought the incentives would have had an impact on grades.” Yet this little sliver of hope gladdened my heart. The response made by the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation Kevan Collins was: “The best evidence currently available suggests that the most powerful driver of achievement in schools is great teaching…”
Well, there’s a thing. Instead of bothering to sort out little systems of rewards and punishments that try to bribe children to work in ways deemed to be useful why not look to your own teaching first? This is not a call to get rid of systems that support great teaching it is a call to ensure that rather dull utilitarian systems that undermine the idea that education is its own reward are replaced by a belief in the power of our rich and varied cultural inheritance to inspire teachers and children to study for its own sake. Yes, if someone does something wrong, they need to be dealt with but vast corporate structures of reward and punishment are trying to ape the business world and that is the last thing a school should be doing.
Apart from the idea of reward and punishment the other thing that sticks out like a sore thumb from the research is that despite children ‘working harder’ in class there were no improvements in their GCSE grades. What ‘working harder’ looked like we can only try to guess but is it really any surprise that if we stop passing on interesting knowledge, discussing and arguing about it, and the creation of new ideas and knowledge from being the centrepiece of why we study and replacing the reason to learn with false pounds, real pounds or haribos that not much ‘improves’?
In the end haribos make you fat, make your teeth blacken, go rotten, and end up falling out. In the end a great education will always give you so much more.
Teach first, bribe never.