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Feedback from incentivised learning participant

In just a couple of months we'll be celebrating the 2024 Olympics and there will, no doubt, be a dazzling array of performances and sporting achievements to celebrate. Gold medals will be distributed to the worthy winners, and that recognition will accompany those people throughout the rest of their lives, as it did for my grandfather Sir Lancelot Royle who won his silver medal in the 4x100 relay in the 1924 Paris Olympics — the ‘Chariots of Fire’ Olympics.

Recognition of individual achievement is commonplace in sport, business, the military and the performing arts, to name but a few. It's not just the hardware of medals and media adulation; it also flows into financial returns in professional sports, business bonuses and seniority salary recognition.

Financial recognition is, however, not very evident in anything connected with the welfare state, where the mantra of universality overrides any aspect of the differentiation which is the key defining characteristic of proper recognition of individual achievement.

Comprehensive education, in particular, suffers from this dulling-down of a spirit of individual enterprise, and it therefore does much to compound the inter-generational cycle of deprivation. No-one would argue with the need to provide the best possible education for all: but is the reluctance to recognise individual achievement going to help or hinder that aim? We would suggest that it's the latter.

For those with a really difficult start in life, financial reward is the most important element of recognising achievement.

I recall meeting Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded Grameen Bank and pioneered microfinance. Following a talk he gave at the London Stock Exchange about ten years ago, I asked him why loan funding was used in preference to grant giving. His answer was direct: it's the difference between learning to feed yourself and others, as opposed to just providing food for temporary relief. The relationships and mutual obligations established by the provision of loan finance enables a permanent transformation in both knowledge and attitude, thereby enabling the cycle of deprivation to be broken.

I next spent an afternoon meeting MPs at Portcullis House in Westminster, exploring the same issue but in relation to young people in care. One after another told me that there should be an element of earning rather than just giving, thereby rewarding the accumulation of life skills.

So, The Share Foundation embedded the concept of incentivised learning into its Stepladder life skills programme for young people in care. After several years working with a relatively small number of local authorities, we were fortunate to receive a significant sum from the British Bankers’ Association in January 2023, and we expanded access throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

As you might imagine, this has resulted in a huge increase in the number of 15-17 year-olds progressing through the course, completing an average of nearly four out of the six steps and earning an average of £822. The next step will be to analyse its impact on their ‘NEET’ status at the age of 19; 40% of adult care leavers find themselves in this situation (NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training), and we believe that incentivised learning is enabling a significant reduction in this proportion.

It is, however, surprisingly difficult to persuade Government to fund these incentives. Even a Conservative Government finds it much easier to provide financial welfare support than to reward life skills attainment, and that's why the research we’re currently undertaking into its very positive impact (both for the young people and the public finances) is so important. For the time being we have to rely on philanthropic funding to be the catalyst, so as to prove that targeted support for those in need should not just be welfare distribution but also recognise success with an appropriate financial reward.

That's not to say that Government resists recognising individual achievements in other areas. Almost every Department could provide examples of this: sometimes financial, sometimes by appointment and sometimes in nominating people for awards. The concept of recognising individual achievement is not therefore alien to Government — it's just that we're not using this very obvious tool to break the cycle of deprivation.

If the UK Government does change its complexion later this year, it will be all the more important to achieve this significant change in mindset and not remain locked in seventy-five year-old political dogma.

In the meantime,  you only have to witness the performing arts or social media to see the huge impact that individual recognition has on the young. It took centre stage in last Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest, and the massive number of followers gained by social media influencers brings real results in terms of downstream financial benefit.

It's a wholly natural human process to appreciate being valued: it builds confidence, and it allows people to achieve their potential without feeling handicapped by their past — and it certainly shouldn’t be restricted to ‘the great and the good’. That's why this week's episode of The Hypnotist is well worth a listen — it uses the metaphor of the Hero's Journey to show how amazing things can happen for those whose initial expectations are very limited.

All humans have the same mix of potential to achieve great things, but unlocking that potential can involve a variety of processes. In families, it's fully accepted that recognition of individual achievement is central to making this happen; we need to recognise that, for those without family support, the same process can also transform lives.

Gavin Oldham OBE

Share Radio