|Reward card lets pupils earn and
Scheme giving bonus points for attending lessons is attacked as 'bribery'
Sunday March 16, 2003
Pupils are being given vouchers to buy CDs, trips to tourist attractions and tickets to Premiership football matches as rewards for attending classes, exercising and not eating fast food.
The controversial £250,000 'points mean prizes' scheme is intended to cut truancy, improve exam results and ensure today's young people turn into model citizens who arrive on time, prefer healthy food and enjoy sport. If successful, it could be extended nationwide.
At Langdon secondary school in east London, each of the 2,000 pupils aged 11-16 starts using their personal smart card to collect points as soon as they arrive. Every time pupils swipe their card - when they register, attend a lesson or have lunch in the school's canteen - they are awarded points. Choosing low-fat dishes, attending revision classes and joining in after-hours sports activities all earn bonus points.
A term's dedication is enough to earn a riding lesson, gym session with a personal trainer or a visit to London Zoo. Over an entire school year students can build up enough points to watch West Ham from an executive box, travel on the London Eye or receive a £10 CD or beauty voucher.
Since the rewards began last September, the school, in deprived East Ham, has seen attendance rise, more pupils eating in the canteen rather than local fast-food outlets and higher participation in activities after the school bell. It hopes its GCSE results this summer will also benefit.
The initiative is a pilot project being funded by Labour-run Newham Council but, if successful, could be extended nationally. Ministers are keen to assess the scheme's impact and it is being championed by Patrick Carter, the chairman of Sport England, as a way of tackling the growing epidemic of obesity and inactivity among Britain's youngsters.
Last night, the Conservatives condemned the experiment as tantamount to bribery. 'It sounds a bit like bribing children to turn up and do their lessons,' said Damian Green, the Shadow Education Secretary. 'I hope this doesn't become a permanent part of something that every school has to do just to get children to behave properly. You shouldn't build it into the culture that pupils get rewards for doing what they should be doing.'
But Newham's mayor, Sir Robin Wales, defended the experiment. 'If we can get kids to learn, to turn up at school, and not to truant and maybe then commit crime, I couldn't care less about that sort of criticism. If rewards work, let's do rewards.'
Wales conceded that, at £250,000, the Langdon scheme was expensive. 'But the long-terms benefits could be considerable, such as helping students get better grades and have a better chance in life. All of that could eventually save us money.'
Carter added: 'Given the high number of teenagers who stop doing sport when they reach 15 or 16, we have to incentivise them to do exercise and do the right thing generally.'
Jamie Smart, a 16-year-old pupil at Langdon, said £10 top-up cards for mobile phones were the most popular rewards. 'A few girls have traded their points for a manicure, and some older boys who want to make a living from music are saving so they can record a demo disc,' she said.
As soon as the points totals are displayed every Monday, pupils check their scores. 'People are competitive about how many they've got, and that encourages people to do things they maybe normally wouldn't,' said Smart.
There are sanctions, too. If a pupil forgets the card twice, they get a detention and a letter is sent to parents. 'Parents have been enthusiastic because they want their children to get the most out of being at school,' said Paul Tunstall, Langdon's assistant head.
The fact that students have to swipe in at 8.40am and to each new lesson means the school knows instantly who is there and who is not. An administrative assistant starts chasing absentees by ringing their parents as soon as the daily registration has ended.
Ivan Lewis, the Minister for young people at the Department for Education and Skills, welcomed Langdon's initiative. 'We support innovative approaches to ensuring pupils' good attendance and engagement with the education system,' he said.