In the dim and distant past, or as my kids put it, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was taking A-levels, it was relatively unheard of for parents to offer money in return for good exam performance.

You know the thing, “so much for an A*, so much for an A”, all the way down to transhipment to Australia for a D. But times have changed and ‘cash for grades’ seems to be both a growing trend and one that polarises opinion in way that only ‘state school versus private’ can match. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the comments section of the Guardian, when the topic was raised recently, to see how little middle ground there is.

What strikes me most about the debate surrounding cash for grades is that it generates a lot of heat, but very little light. Put another way, where is the objective, informed comment?

Stop for a moment and we can probably all call to mind some of the standard arguments for the non-payers: that we should value education for education’s sake or that it sets a dangerous precedent that is tough to stop.

Equally, the bonus payers have their own home truths: if you get a bonus in the workplace for good performance, why not at school or (somewhat ominously) these exams are too important to be left to chance. But can anyone tell us if it works and if so, when?

One of the difficulties with this problem is that even the most ardent supporter of education for it’s own sake would recognise that it’s an example of one of life’s great conundrums: as humans, we find it tough to put the hard work in now, in return for a nebulous gain at some undefined point in the future. Our ancestors put the work in to catch food and expected to immediately eat in return for the work, so we are hardwired to expect the gains straight after the work.

A recent research paper by Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) et al might shed some much needed light on the subject. The research, conducted amongst students in low performing Chicago schools, suggests that cash or prizes can work in certain circumstances and if the reward is designed in the right way.

In short, it has to be sufficiently big and relatively immediate for it to make any difference at all. At this point, parents, feel free to gulp. If we take too long to deliver the cash, its effect is nullified. The incentive (or bribe if you are that way inclined) also works better it taps into our natural instinct to fear loss more than we desire gain. That means we should put the incentive on the table up front and then take it away if performance doesn’t hit the agreed level.  Somehow, that sounds a bit cruel, but crude is often effective in these matters.

So that’s in then, case closed.

Well, not quite. It would be wrong to extrapolate from the circumstances in which this research was conducted to all situations for all students. There is a fairly significant body of research from the work place that suggests that a bonus has a very short-term effect and leads to the expectation of similar rewards in future.

You might say that it doesn’t matter, they will be through the exams and out the other side, but in the modern education system, there is always another set of exams.

Extrinsic motivators (cash, pat on the back) are far less effective than intrinsic motivators (an in built desire to do well or achieve something). Sound familiar? There is also a body of research that suggests that prioritising the outcome (that A*) over how it’s achieved is a recipe for long term under performance.

Developing the skills that will be useful in life is as, if not more important than the difference between an A and a B in an exam.

I’m left with the feeling that both sides can claim new ammunition in the cash for grades argument, but perhaps the most important lesson is that what counts in this discussion is the specific, not the general. By understanding the arguments for both sides, it becomes easier to sit down, talk and decide what works for you. But one thing is clear, if you can’t come up with something that is a real incentive, you’ll do more harm than good by reaching into your wallet.

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