Financial Incentives for Underperforming Students

By Leon Hady

A study took place across a selection of schools in the UK that investigated the effects of providing financial incentives for positive performance by looking at improved school work, attendance and behaviour of underperforming students.


I was able to see the effects of the focus of study first hand as I implemented this at a school I was at during my tenure there. In our context students would be allowed to ‘bank’ their rewards which could only be redeemed against school orientated items. This could be anything from stationery to iPads as long as it was necessary for school life.


The results of the study suggest that there could be up to 10% improvement in pass rates for students struggling the most[1]. In my personal experience, aside from pass rates, I found this type of incentive sometimes worked very well, such as where a student would request to redeem their incentive against a bus pass to head to school which their families were struggling to afford. However, in contrast, sometimes it would not work so well where a student might request to redeem their incentive against trainers.


This highlights the materialistic angle it’s possible for the incentive to take and although the results appear to be positive in favour of the incentive, there are a number of concerns that need to be considered.


Practically, if this scheme was to be adopted more widely, there would need to be defined rules about which students would be eligible for this type of funding as it would be unrealistic, financially, to offer this to every underperforming student. There would need to be certain criteria for eligibility such means testing, taking into account family background or social services recommendations. However, due to the complex nature of most people’s lives, this would be no easy task.


Even with a small percentage of students being identified as eligible for this type of funding, in an environment where resources are being cut, one might ask where the funds to support such a scheme might come from? In the study noted, 10,600 students took part; each has the capacity to receive incentives worth up to £80 per half term[2]. That equates to £480 per student per year, with a net figure of £508,800 if all the students in the study reached their maximum potential reward. Considering these figures on a national scale, it’s questionable whether resources would be available to go forward with such a project.


Another potential concern with this strategy is whether the students benefiting from the funding are receiving the wrong moral message. One might argue that adding financial gain to schools is missing the fundamental lesson of education. That learning should be valued for the process and knowledge gained. With the current pressure of pass grades and meeting expected social goals such as College and University the education system already deviates from this ideal value and enjoyment of learning. A financial incentive scheme may further separate student perceptions from the idea that the purpose and reward of education is the acquirement of knowledge itself, and may even breed a sense of entitlement.


My first job was when I was 13/14 years of age and I can recall the strong sense of earning that was instilled in me from that experience. There was a sense of accomplishment from achieving something independently that is very relatable for many people when they first start working which students benefiting from financial incentives at school may miss out on entirely. By allowing students to receive financial support in this way, could it be allowing them to miss valuable life and social lessons that may help them develop independently?


There is also the possibility that this might encourage students with the ability to perform better independently to underperform for financial benefit or out of protest as they feel the nature of the incentive is intrinsically biased against better performing students.


If such a scheme was to be made more widely available, the application of it would need to be used with great caution and /or as a last resort in dire cases due to the financial strain and ethical implications that are attached to it.


Rather than widening the application of an incentive scheme fraught with ethical implications that may fundamentally present unhelpful bias, we need to consider the option that it may be just as or more beneficial to put the resources available towards increasing the quality and availability of extracurricular activities and after school clubs that are geared towards igniting passion and engagement with students as well as celebrating and strengthening student knowledge and characters. Projects like these can increase confidence, independence and are able to be aimed towards achieving further qualifications.


Following this method of engaging with students in an enthusiastic and empowering learning environment seems a more positive direction to lead education from a philosophical and practical point of view.