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What are GCSEs really worth?

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Reportedly, parents are incentivising GCSEs, with some handing out cash, gadgets or even holidays in exchange for good grades. Is this normal?  I didn’t get a trip abroad when I got my GCSEs, nor did I expect one- but I did get some money. Unfortunately for younger me, it was nowhere near the £600 some students are supposedly getting.

To benchmark my own experience, I asked my colleagues at The Key what GCSE rewards they got.

A lot said they got money, but precisely how much differed wildly. Depending on the strengths of their negotiating skills, the value of an A grade varied between £100 and - well, £2.50.

One of my colleagues missed out on a cash bonus, although perhaps not entirely by his own doing. He said:

My parents once made a promise, when I was in year 7, that they would reward me money on a sliding scale for each GCSE grade I got. I made sure they wrote everything down on a piece of paper and signed it. Over the course of the next five years, I lost said contract (or my parents lost it for me).

Other prizes included a new mobile phone (a fancy slide-up one with a colour screen and polyphonic ringtones), a bike and an Xbox. For one researcher, an A* equated to four driving lessons, an A was worth three, and a B was worth two lessons. One particularly lucky person got a trip to Florida, which years later won him the title for biggest GCSE reward here at The Key. A nice little extra, but I'll assume the Florida trip was probably the better prize.

Celebratory meals out were also common – and sometimes surprisingly touching. One of our researchers told me:

I remember my dad taking me to lunch at PizzaExpress, just the two of us. It’s always stuck in my mind as the first time I really remember him talking to me like a grown up.

However, by far the most common present received by my colleagues was ... nothing. One researcher said:

As far as I can remember I got no money. There were no incentives for me, just love and pride.

In fairness, love and pride seem like pretty big incentives. Other parents took a different approach, as another colleague told me:

My parents used to tell us that school was our only responsibility and that paying us for fulfilling our only responsibility was “wrong”.

And some parents just went a bit overboard, as told by a researcher:

I got eight A*s and one A. All I got was a telling off for dropping an A*.

So the last example is perhaps a bit harsh, but the overall sentiment is supported by research conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which found that cash incentives lead to no significant improvement in GCSE results. However, one of my colleagues bucked this trend:

I hated maths and I was getting Ds in all my maths mock exams. My engineer dad (eternal champion of the importance of maths, but also of hard work for hard work’s sake) decided to take drastic action. He offered me an iPod if I got an A, so I crammed over the space of a week. I still have that iPod today.

Whilst I am pleased for this iPod-owner, her story was far from the norm. Instead, my colleagues allayed any concerns I had that exams have become a crude bartering exercise between parents and students. Whilst cash and gifts are nice, they are (still) not why we strive for good grades.

Obviously, GCSEs are worthwhile because they provide opportunities to progress to further education, as my colleague Adam discusses in another post about what really defines achievement.

But there is also a bit more to it: GCSEs embody all the hard work that you have put into your education so far. And you can’t really put a price on that.

If you’re a member of our service for school leaders, take a look at our articles on GCSEs and post-16 qualifications and careers guidance

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