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Published 14 May 2024
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Are the Parents Paying £100 Plus for Top Exam Grades Setting Their Children up for Success or Failure?

As some teenagers receive hundreds of pounds, festival tickets or games consoles as rewards for performing well in their exams, we asked the experts if it pays to reward good grades, and what it may mean for their future relationship with money.

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The most stressful time in the school calendar has arrived: exam season. Nerves are already frazzled after months of mock examinations, teacher assessments and revision – and now teenagers up and down the country are preparing to sit their GCSEs and A/AS Levels or, in Scotland, the National Qualifications or Highers. 

Good exam results are widely recognised as an important step towards a bright future, and can open doors to higher education, first jobs and apprenticeships. Just as some parents reward young children for good behaviour with sticker charts or weekly treats, parents of teenagers are increasingly offering cash incentives for good GCSE and A Level grades.

Rewards include expensive festival tickets, paying for holidays or handing over hundreds of pounds in cash to those who get top marks. 

Research from financial services provider OneFamily found that 77% of parents admit to rewarding good grades, with the average payout at £150 per child. However, academic high flyers have the potential to earn much more: OneFamily found that each top GCSE result (Grade 9, which is equivalent to an A*)  is worth an average of £100. 

Can financial motivation help young people achieve their potential, or does it only add to the pressure of exam season? 

Cash rewards for good grades

When Stephanie Buckley was studying for her GCSEs, her grandparents incentivised her to study by promising to pay her £100 for each A, B or C grade. “I think I probably did a little bit better as a result,” she told NerdWallet. “In the end, they gave me and my siblings £100 for each GCSE that we did, regardless of the grade. It was a lot of money but they did it because, to them, education was the most important thing.”

Buckley, a qualified teacher from Somerset who now runs an insolvency practice, now has four children aged 11, eight, six and four and is considering doing the same for her children when they take their GCSEs. She said: “If we need an extra incentive to get them to study then this could make them work harder. I suppose my grandparent’s legacy has been passed down. It’s about giving them the best choices in life and investing in their future.”

Buckley believes incentivising children in this way has other benefits, too. “I think it’s a great way to learn about financial literacy. Money is tangible and it’s a direct reward for all their efforts. Some people will disagree but it’s the way of the world: you do a good job, you will get paid well. Getting comfortable with receiving money and negotiating is equipping kids with entrepreneurial skills for life.”

Zoe Roberts from Cheshire is convinced that a financial incentive improved her son’s GCSE results. She told NerdWallet, “He was (and is) very bright but was terrible at focusing and applying himself at school – so we promised him £150 per A*/A, £100 per B and £50 per C. I honestly believe that he wouldn’t have achieved his grades without it. He got a couple of Grade 9s (the equivalent to an A*) and he didn’t get any low grades. He came out of it with about £450.”

Is it a bad idea to incentivise kids with cash?

According to OneFamily, on average parents start incentivising children to do their school work when they are just 10 years old. In most families this coincides with the period when children are practising reading and learning spelling in preparation for assessments such as the SATS and 11+ exams. While a financial incentive might help encourage some kids to study harder, experts warn that it’s not always helpful. 

Counsellor Georgina Sturmer MBACP told NerdWallet: “I totally understand why parents look for ways to reward success and instil motivation in their children. My personal take on it is that rewarding specific grades or specific achievements can lead to some quite challenging consequences.”

Sturmer explained: “The way we develop our sense of self-worth and self-esteem as we grow up is very much contingent on the messages we absorb from our parents and caregivers. If we are given the message that we are more worthy or more valuable or more loved, not necessarily because of the amount of effort we’re putting in, but because of the end grade, then that will set us up for really difficult behaviours. It can lead us into perfectionism and people pleasing, which is something that we see a lot in adulthood, or it can have the opposite effect where we spiral off into rebellion or having a sense of failure about ourselves.”

Sturmer also believes it’s important to think about this in the context of different siblings. “If a child is growing up in a family where the other sibling is the more academic one, and yet they are given this kind of same target, that can really entrench a feeling of being insecure or less worthy.”

There’s also the risk that the pressure to do well could negatively affect the outcome of exams. Kids’ confidence coach Natalie Costa, who was a primary school teacher for 10 years, told NerdWallet that it was common for the children she taught to be incentivised in this way when they came to do their SATs. She said: “There were definitely some children who said they were going to get money, or the equivalent of Xboxes, if they did well in their SATs or the 11+ exams.” 

She added, “Parents mean well but this sends the wrong message. As a teacher and coach I’ve seen the panic, the pressure and anxiety that would take place before the tests, and that doesn’t put children in the best possible state to perform. I’d hear children saying that their parents would be cross with them if they didn’t do well.”

Motivation or celebration?

While experts are cautious about the benefits of rewarding top grades, Sturmer sees nothing wrong in celebrating the end of exam season with a special treat. She said: “I think it’s really helpful to recognise that going through these gruelling examinations is certainly going to be the hardest thing they’ve ever done at that point in their life. Arguably, looking back, it may well be the hardest thing that any of us might do. 

“So it’s a positive thing to reward all that effort and hard work with some kind of incentive that feels appropriate within our own families. The crucial thing is to just not tie it to those grades at the end as this sets them up to fail if they don’t achieve them.”

This is the approach taken by Sheena Ager, an author from Berkshire. Ager told NerdWallet, “When my daughter was 10 she took the 11+ for our local state grammar school. We promised a reward regardless of the outcome, and gave her a choice between a family trip to Disneyland or a dog. She chose the dog, so we got her a Border Terrier puppy, and she called him Eric. The approach worked for us – she got such a high mark that I almost fell off my chair when it came in. My son made the same choice when he sat his exams and we got a second dog, Blossom. We’ve since bred her and also have her son, Ziggy. They adore these dogs. It’s the best thing we ever did!”

Eric, Blossom and Ziggy the dogs

L-R: Eric, Blossom and Ziggy

Ultimately, parents know their children best – and what works for one family might not work for another. “Somewhere along the way, children really need to learn how to develop their own sense of motivation,” said Sturmer. “It’s much more valuable to work with our children to understand what they want out of life, how they think that they can get that, and what would motivate them to get up and study. Having those conversations with our children, rather than just dangling this big carrot of a certain reward, is better for them in the long term.”

Image source: Getty Images

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