An Open Letter to Schools Using Rewards Without Considering the Consequences

Let me start by saying this is not a complaint about teachers or educators. I think that they do an incredible job and don’t receive enough credit for that.

This is about the system that forces them to push children to the limit and then push more. A system that is set up by non educators driven by KPIs , targets for funding and a pathological desire to generate meaningless metrics so they can create spreadsheets and pretty charts.

It is no secret that I am not a fan of any of that!

The recent issue has been the use of rewards without an understanding of unintended consequences, in this instance to incentivise attendance. Schools are under immense pressure to keep attendance levels in the very high 90%s ( I was a governor, the figures and statistics were beyond depressing). The current misguided concept has been to give kids who have 100% attendance no homework for a week.

This sounds harmless enough on the surface, but things often do until you consider them closely. When you reward a group of people, there has to be a group that remains unrewarded. Again, not that big an issue. Not everyone can achieve everything. However, rewards should be earned not just handed out, for them to have any real meaning. Being rewarded just for turning up is not sending a very good message now is it?

But it is worse than that. In this instance the children who had real reasons to be off sick are made to feel they are being punished for not turning up. In the case of my daughter, she had vomiting sickness. School policy is that if a child has been sick, they can’t be in the next day. The reason is obvious — they don’t want everyone getting ill. But hold on, they won’t get their reward, so what should they do? I have heard stories from some parents about vomiting children sobbing because they won’t get their 100% attendance reward!

So the message here is that being sick is punishable and just turning up is enough to be rewarded. This leads to a horrible mentality that we see all the time in companies. I can’t be ill, I may miss out on something. Instead I will come into work. At best I will be less productive for a few days, at worst I will make everyone else sick and they will all be off or less productive. What they should do is recover for a day or two, then come in fit and healthy!

In the case of schools, I get the logic. They need to maintain high attendance and want to encourage children not to malinger. However, at the ages we are dealing with (7–10), they are not all that in control of their attendance, it is down to the parents. There could be a mindset that the kids will apply pressure on their parents to be in every day so that they don’t miss out on their reward. But how is a parents circumstances the child's fault? Why should they be punished because a single parent has a family emergency and has no option but to keep the child out for school?

The heartbreaking moment for me was when my daughter had the following conversation with me:

Me: Mummy is off out tomorrow.
Olivia: Take me with you.
Mummy: But you have school.
Olivia: I’m not getting my attendance reward so what does that matter?

Stop using rewards to bribe children into doing things. Rewards need to be earned to celebrate excellence, not presenteeism or general mediocrity. Kids don’t understand that the school has targets to hit, they just come away feeling that they have done something wrong by being sick. When you have to impose rewards on them, understand the concepts of over justification effect, self determination theory and unintended consequences.

More importantly, the education system needs to stop forcing those who know what they are doing, the teachers and the TAs and all the other people directly involved in the education of our children, into driving children down a one-size fits all mediocracy. They need to let them get on with doing what they are good at — educating!