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Why '100% Attendance Awards' at School Don't Work

10/06/2013 15:56 BST | Updated 10/08/2013 10:12 BST

100% Attendance Awards are growing in popularity with most UK primary and secondary schools now using them to encourage better attendance and less truanting by pupils. Some schools are spending upwards of 25K a year on rewards such as IPods, bicycles and Kindles, and are convinced that the spike in attendance that they invariably produce, are worth the cost.

The schemes are not without their critics though, the most vociferous of whom often voice their concerns on parenting sites like Netmums and Mumsnet; one parent complained that these schemes are 'basically rewarding immune systems' whilst another pointed out that 'it's wrong to reward something no one can control - i.e. being ill'.

The real problem with 100% Attendance Schemes, however, is that they don't work. I am a firm believer in encouraging school attendance and discouraging truancy. In fact, I am running a project called Your Future, Your Life, (funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) at the University of Central Lancashire which is an anti-truancy project. The project is a two year initiative consisting of a year's pilot in the North West of England, before being rolled out nationally in 2014.

Your Future, Your Life, is, however, an attendance project with a difference. There are no 'rewards' given to kids for attending school. The project aims to move away from the culture of trying to motivate kids to attend school by offering them external incentives like cinema tickets, trips to themes parks and IPods, and instead looks at the young person in a holistic way so as to build up their internal motivation to attend more and aim higher. We want them to want to attend school because of the perceived benefits of what happens there, not in order to get a certificate, badge or pizza.

100% Attendance Schemes don't work. Not only do they penalise and stigmatise good kids who have the misfortune to be ill or have a medical condition, psychological 'over justification theory' suggests that if we give kids too many external rewards for attending school, they learn that school attendance only has value for these rewards. Psychologists have long known this; the first studies to demonstrate the 'overjustification' effect were conducted over 40 years ago in 1971. Edward Deci, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester University in the US, asked students to solve puzzles for money or for no money. After the payment stopped, the researchers noted if the students continued to work on the puzzles. Those that had received money (an extrinsic motivation for solving the puzzles) did in fact become less inclined to work on the puzzles once they were no longer paid to do so. The students who had not been paid (and thus only had intrinsic motivation) continued to show an interest in the puzzles.

Deci suggested that in a situation where an individual is to receive a reward for an activity, then the individual would attribute his or her behaviour to the reward instead of the activity itself. Deci's theory, published in the esteemed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, led to the hypothesis that once an activity is associated with the external reward, a person will be less inclined to participate in the activity in the future without a reward present.

Attendance schemes then might get kids to attend more whilst the schemes are in place (although even that is debatable; the really hard core truants tend not to respond to these schemes), but they don't produce long-term change and nor do they get them to 'attend' whilst they are attending. When the prizes stop, attendance rates tend to slip again; a study in 2008 conducted by Maurice Galton and John MacBeath, from Cambridge University, found "little sign" reward systems led to improvements in pupil behaviour whilst Emma Dunmore, head of psychology at Harrogate Grammar School, North Yorkshire, conducted a study in 2009 into the effectiveness of reward schemes and found that they produce little long-term benefit. Indeed, despite the commonplace use of such reward schemes nowadays, truancy rates in the UK remain at an all-time high; they have failed to fall in secondary schools whilst rates of truancy in primary schools were up 0.6% in 2012.

It's time then, to ditch these external reward schemes that deliver short-term benefits but offer little long-term value. Let's stop punishing kids for being ill and instead look at ways to increase engagement and intrinsic motivation for all school children. We need to get kids to attend more in order to aim higher - so that they can eventually buy their own Ipods.