Free article: Incentivising attendance - what really works

Published: Tuesday, 04 February 2014

David Birch outlines the importance of reward systems as a means of improving attendance in schools. Read on to find out about the merits of commercial schemes and the essential actions within schools that will improve attendance.

Summary

  • Many schools point to the effectiveness of rewards and incentives in improving attendance.
  • Incentive schemes can be integrated with school MIS systems, so that rewards can be linked to behaviour and attendance data.
  • Schools can encourage ownership of their reward schemes by seeking and acting on their pupils’ views.

The importance of rewards and incentives

The focus on improving school attendance is generally two-fold: the reduction of the persistent absence of relatively few difficult-to-engage pupils and the improvement in the overall attendance of most pupils. For the latter, research seems to indicate that rewards and incentives are more effective than sanctions, while persistent absence needs to be addressed by more personalised strategies, including legally enforced penalties.

Some regard the rewarding of attendance as problematic: why should pupils be rewarded just for fulfilling the most basic of expectations – i.e. turning up regularly at school? And if pupils are to be rewarded for attendance, why should those who fail to attend through no fault of their own (through illness or accident) be denied rewards?

It has also been argued that formal reward systems are valued less within schools where attainment is higher:

‘In schools where students are motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn and achieve, formal systems of rewards and penalties may be redundant. In two of the higher attaining schools in the sample (measured by examination results, attendance, number of students with special educational needs), our data showed the formal systems for rewards and penalties are not valued by teachers and students.’

(Student Perception of Rewards and Sanctions)

Yet many schools point to the success of rewards and incentives in improving attendance and shifting the attitudes of pupils towards school. They recognise that poor attendance is associated with poor academic performance and are not averse to the introduction of reward schemes if they can make that difference.

So, what rewards really work and do they work for all pupils? Is there a difference in the effectiveness of intrinsic rewards, where the desire to learn and achieve is incentive enough, and extrinsic rewards, which can take the form of anything from merits and letters home, to store vouchers and entries in prize draws?

Commercial reward schemes

There are a number of companies that produce schemes to incentivise good behaviour and attendance, usually involving extrinsic rewards. Three of the best known are Vivo Miles (www.vivomiles.com), EPraise (www.epraise.co.uk) and Pupil Reward Points (www.pupilrewardpoints.co.uk). They are web-based and can integrate with school MIS systems, so that rewards can be easily linked to behaviour and attendance data, and to teachers’ merit awards. Vivo Miles is the largest and most expensive, but provides all the rewards and gifts within its system. Schools using the other schemes can provide rewards themselves, often through negotiation with local businesses.

Commercial schemes can ensure that the rewarding of good attendance is transparent and public. For example, EPraise includes the options of ‘leader-boards’ to identify top pupils, tutor groups and teachers (in terms of those who are rewarded the most). Here, schools will need to decide how well such public recognition might sit within their overall ethos for rewards and sanctions.Schools using these schemes can point to measurable improvements in attendance and cite pupils’ satisfaction with the rewards available.

Effective reward systems

There are, however, some qualifications and conditions for reward systems to work effectively:

  • Rewards and incentives need to be progressive to be effective: what appeals to a Year 7 pupil may not motivate a Year 10 pupil
  • For reward systems to be successful, all teachers need to ‘sign up’ to them and be consistent in applying them
  • The data informing the use of rewards needs to be secure and accurate: consistency in the application of recording absences and late attendance is vital. Everyone needs to be clear when registers for each session close
  • Extrinsic rewards are likely to be more effective when they operate within a supportive ethos: they are not a substitute for strategies that promote pupils’ intrinsic desire to succeed.

Creating a culture of success in which good attendance is valued

If reward systems work best within an ethos of praise and support, how is this best developed? Schools that are successful in improving be-haviour and attendance are characterised by the following attributes:

  • They do not neglect cost-free solutions, because pupils and parents value such personal recognition as written commendations, postcards home and individual praise from headteachers and senior staff
  • They reward good attendance collectively as well as individually: recognition for class and house attendance promotes peer encouragement and healthy competition
  • They create ownership of their reward schemes by seeking pupils’ views (see the Toolkit for a sample questionnaire that can be used to gather pupils’ thoughts on attendance and punctuality)
  • They engage positively with families over attendance issues, stressing the impact that good attendance has on pupils’ academic success
  • They take steps to re-integrate pupils who have been absent in positive ways, providing support structures enabling them to catch up on missing work
  • They balance incentives and rewards with sanctions, so that everyone is clear that there are also consequences for poor attendance and punctuality
  • The drive to achieve excellent attendance and punctuality is led from the top: the leadership of head teachers and senior staff is as important here as in all other school improvement strategies
  • All staff model best practice in attendance and punctuality: if we expect pupils to attend on time, then it is vital for teachers and support staff to be at lessons on time.

In conclusion, the key message about incentivising attendance is that consistency and a rewards ethos are woven into the fabric of the school. Incentives are not quick fixes but part of a well-thought-through strategy that builds a culture of positive behaviour.

Further resources

  • Improving Behaviour and Attendance at School, Hallam and Rogers, Open University Press, 2008: http://bit.ly/1a2r0Ye
  • Improving Attendance at School, Charlie Taylor, DfE, 2012: http://bit.ly/1ceeHCa
  • The Use of Reward Systems to Improve Behaviour and Attendance in Schools, Merrett & Merrett, British Psychological Society, 2013: http://bit.ly/19plcaD
  • Student Perceptions of Rewards and Sanctions, Cross-schools Research Group, UEA, 2001: http://bit.ly/1gAz4hj

Toolkit

Premium and Premium Plus subscribers can download this template document from the Toolkit section:

  • Questionnaire - Pupil attendance questionnaire

About the author

David Birch is Associate Director of the National Education Trust and a freelance education consultant. He is a school improvement adviser working with local authorities in the south-west and, following a career teaching English in London and Oxfordshire, was formerly principal of a secondary school in Devon.

First published on this website in March 2014.

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