In which I explain why Ofsted’s (alleged) policy on rewards and sanctions is wrong

Three things have happened in the last week or so that have caused me to sharpen my thinking around the use of rewards and sanctions in school.

The first was my reading on the BBC News website of a research project, carried out by the Universities of Bristol and Chicago and published by the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), into the use of money and event tickets as motivators to raise students’ achievement.[1] Over 10,000 students from 63 schools were split into two study groups. One group ‘was told that they had £80 at the start of each half term, and that they were to lose £10 if they missed a set target for attendance or behaviour, and £30 for classwork and homework.’ Meanwhile, the other group ‘was allocated eight tickets at the beginning of each half-term, and promised a trip or outing if they retained twelve tickets by the end of the year.’ The students’ progress in GCSE English, Maths and Science was then tracked over the course of one year. There were some small improvements in classwork effort in the first group, and small improvements in Maths scores amongst a sub-group of lower attaining students in the second group; however, the researchers were forced to conclude that, overall, the two schemes had no impact on students’ effort, behaviour, homework or on their final GCSE results.

The second was that, as part of my own ongoing research into ‘Growth Mindset’, I finished reading Daniel Pink’s Drive.[2] I’ve blogged about Pink previously, just over a year ago, on the subject of performance-related pay.[3] Here’s what I wrote:

In a speech at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford in July 2009, Daniel Pink quoted from a 2005 study by Ariely et al (sponsored by the US Federal Reserve Bank), in which participants in a series of experiments were offered financial incentives to complete a range of tasks: ‘As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.’ However, ‘once the task called for “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” a larger reward “led to poorer performance”.’ Even when the experiment was extended to India, in order to control for cultural bias, the findings were the same: ‘In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.’

Consequently, the findings of the EEF research projects didn’t come as that much of a surprise.

What did come as a surprise was the third thing, which was that we were told in a pastoral meeting that, according to Ofsted, our current ratio of 7 rewards to 1 sanction means that we are only a ‘Good’ school; ‘Outstanding’ schools give out rewards to sanctions at a ratio of 10:1. Therefore, we were told, in anticipation of an inspection at some point in Spring 2015, we should be rewarding students more. (“Or sanctioning less,” was my reply.)

I don’t know whether this is official Ofsted policy or not; if not, I will happily edit this post accordingly. Certainly I was under the impression that Ofsted were moving towards a more evidence-based policy, which should therefore reflect the accumulated weight of evidence that, in any kind of task that requires “even rudimentary cognitive skill” (which, one would hope, includes what goes on in every teacher’s classroom), higher rewards lead to worse performance. To be sure, writes Pink, ‘while a few advocates would have you believe in the basic evil of extrinsic incentives, that’s just not empirically true. What is true is that mixing rewards with inherently interesting, creative, or noble tasks – deploying them without understanding the peculiar science of motivation – is a very dangerous game. When used in these situations, “if-then” rewards usually do more harm than good.’[4]

Extrinsic motivators (including money and event tickets, any kind of prizes like sweets and chocolates, even target grades and house points) narrow people’s focus, undermine creativity, promote short-term thinking and encourage unethical behaviour. The implications for Ofsted policy are clear: ‘Outstanding’ schools should give out few rewards. Instead, the culture of these schools should built around the three intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Back in July, I blogged about one way in which this could be achieved – namely, by embedding a commitment to comment-only marking at a whole-school level.[5] Identifying more of these strategies is central to my continuing research.


[1] H. Richardson (2014) ‘Cash incentives “don’t boost GCSE results”’, (article dated 3 October 2014; site accessed 4 October 2014)

[2] D. H. Pink (2011) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Edinburgh, Canongate)

[3] C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I consider performance-related pay’, (post dated 1 October 2013; site accessed 4 October 2014)

[4] Pink, Drive, p.49

[5] C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I consider the relationship between AfL and Growth Mindset’, (post dated 20 July 2014; site accessed 4 October 2014)


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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One Response to In which I explain why Ofsted’s (alleged) policy on rewards and sanctions is wrong

  1. Pingback: In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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