With teachers and students heading back to school, it’s been revealed that attempts to offer rewards in a bid to boost attendance do not work.

A large scale study of Californian secondary school students found that offering rewards for good school attendance records made no significant difference.

Indeed, researchers say that in some circumstances the rewards can make absenteeism worse.

The research follows a trend to offer school prizes and commendations along with financial rewards to those students who enjoy the best records for attendance, without missing lessons.

Now the Harvard Kennedy School of Government says it has looked at the rewards schemes in 14 school districts affecting 15,000 students.

Essentially, researchers say that when prizes were promised to students in advance, there was no difference to whether pupils attended school.

Negative impact on future school attendance by winners

However, if rewards are offered retrospectively to recognise high levels of attendance, there is a negative impact on future school attendance by winners.

The report writers say this is the opposite of what education officials and teachers are expecting.

They found that just 2% of staff expect reward schemes to not have a positive impact.

Since it is Californian state policy to support school reward schemes, the researchers wanted to know why there’s a big gap between the outcomes and the good intentions.

This, the researchers say, boils down to the unintended messages being sent by having a reward scheme which could demotivate students.

One issue is that for those students who won an award for having an attendance that was higher than expected could receive an inadvertent signal that they can take a more relaxed approach to attendance in future.

Award could tell students that their behaviour is exceptional

Researchers say that the award could tell students that their behaviour is exceptional and not what is required and so they could believe they can try less hard.

The report writers state: “The award may result in some recipients feeling they are allowed to miss a day school in future.”

Also, winners of an attendance award may see the message that normal attendance is much lower and make the recipient feel uncomfortably different and so they might adapt their good behaviour to miss a few schooldays as a result.

The report concludes that in the case of attendance rewards those teaching staff who enthusiastically used the schemes found that almost none of them had expected the scheme to deliver a negative effect.

The report states: “The findings have implications for how and when a reward should be used in order to motivate desirable behaviours and when they could backfire.”