The Composition of England’s Gifted and Talented Population in Schools

This post updates a 2010 offering – ‘On the Composition of Gifted and Talented Populations’ – which reviewed the data about gifted and talented learners in state-funded schools contained in England’s January 2010 School Census.

The January 2011 Census data has just been released by the Department for Education in SFR 12 2011 (tables 6a-6c), so this is an opportunity to review the headline figures and compare them with the 2010 outcomes and those of previous years.

Although there is only a single question in the Census, we have been very fortunate to have this data, which allows us to monitor the composition of  England’s national gifted and talented population as identified by schools.

The initial guidance for the 2012 census appeared to suggest that the G&T question would be retained for at least one more year, although it and others were under threat from a Government committed to removing administrative burdens from schools. However, the July 2011 version of the guidance mentioned for the first time that the G&T indicator had been dropped and this was confirmed in the November guidance to schools.

The continued presence of the question had been an important reminder to schools that their response to G&T learners remained subject to scrutiny, especially since the Government had extended its commitment to publishing school level data to the G&T dataset.

So for one time only, we could see full details of the composition of the identified G&T population in every school. We also had the capacity – fleetingly – to match it with other material, such as school-level achievement data for example.

A Brief Data Snapshot of English Schools

Here is a very brief summary of the overall size and composition of the schools sector, to help set the G&T statistics in context.

At January 2011, there were 4.14 million learners in state-funded primary schools and 3.26 million learners in state-funded secondary schools. A further 0.576 million were attending independent schools.

There are almost 16,900 state-funded primary schools, more than 3,300 state-funded secondary schools and over 2,400 independent schools.

Some 19.2% of learners in state-funded nursery/primary schools are eligible for free school meals (our standard indicator of disadvantage); the comparable figure in state-funded secondary schools is 15.9%.

About 26.5% of learners in state-funded primary schools and 22.2% in state-funded secondary schools are from a minority ethnic background.

About one in six of all primary school pupils and approaching one in eight of all secondary school pupils has a first language other than English.

The G&T Population in January 2011 compared with January 2010 and previous years

The Census tells us that, in January 2011, there were 354,000 identified G&T learners in state-funded primary schools and 464,000 in state-funded secondary schools, giving an overall total of 818,000.

This marks a fall of 12,000 primary pupils and 17,000 secondary pupils compared with the January 2010 figures – so an overall reduction of about 3.5% in identified G&T learners, and this at a time when the total number of pupils in primary and secondary schools has very slightly increased.

The January 2011 numbers are equivalent to 8.6% of all pupils in state-funded primary schools and 14.2% of all pupils in state-funded secondary schools. The comparable percentages in 2010 were 8.9% and 14.7% respectively.

2011 is the first year in which the number of identified G&T pupils has declined, returning to a lower level than was registered the year before last.

2008 2009 2010 2011
Primary 331580 353275 365970 353865
Secondary 448380 467105 481225 464040
Total 779960 820380 847195 817905

The Composition of the G&T Population

The gender composition of the population has changed little over the years and 2011 is no exception. It continues to be the case that slightly more boys than girls are identified in primary schools (51.2% compared with 48.8%), while the reverse is true in secondary schools (52.1% of girls compared with 47.9% of boys).

In the case of socio-economic disadvantage, as measured by free school meal (FSM) eligibility, although the total number of FSM-eligible G&T pupils has fallen in the primary sector, they now represent a very slightly larger proportion of the primary school G&T population (up from 12.1% to 12.3%).

In the secondary sector the total number of FSM-eligible G&T students has increased very slightly – so bucking the overall downward trend – and their share of the overall G&T population has also increased slightly, from 7.2 to 7.3%.

However, the overall rates of eligibility for free school meals have also increased since January 2010, up 0.7% in primary and 0.5% in secondary schools, so the G&T improvements are less significant (and less positive) given this wider context.

And, since the overall rates of FSM eligibility are now 19.2% in primary and 15.9% in secondary, the G&T populations in both sectors are still some distance from being broadly representative. The secondary sector continues to be significantly worse than the primary sector in this respect.

The minority ethnic composition of the G&T population remains largely unchanged. The proportion of white pupils identified as G&T has fallen by 0.5% in both the primary and the secondary sectors, but their incidence within the G&T population remains in line with their incidence in the pupil population as a whole.

However, this continues to mask serious under-representation by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage pupils – just 435 were identified as G&T across the primary and secondary sectors, out of a total combined population approaching 17,000.

At the other extreme, although the percentage of the Chinese population identified as G&T is almost unchanged, at 21.3% in state-funded primary schools and 25.2% in state-funded secondary schools, Chinese pupils are very heavily over-represented since they comprise only 0.4% of the national pupil population.

The proportion of learners with English as an Additional Language in the overall school population stands at 16.8% in state-funded primary schools and 12.3% in state-funded secondary schools. The comparable percentages within the G&T population are 15.3% and 9.8% respectively. The G&T percentages have been increasing steadily since 2008, but the improvement is probably attributable to the overall increase in EAL numbers in the general pupil population.

There has been relatively little change and no discernible pattern over time in the percentage of identified G&T learners with Special Educational Needs (Statements, School Action Plus and School Action). Currently, 3.1% of those with a statement in state-funded primary schools and 3.2% of statemented pupils in state-funded secondary schools are identified as G&T.

School-level Data

A thorough analysis of the newly-published school-level data must wait for another day, but this very brief commentary is intended to whet your appetites.

A first pass through the data shows that about 50 secondary schools are currently failing to identify any gifted and talented learners. Interestingly, six of them are grammar schools, some of them with very selective intakes indeed (Pate’s in Gloucestershire, Queen Elizabeth GS in Cumbria, Cranbrook in Kent, Bishop Wordsworth’s in Wiltshire, Tiffin Girls’ in Kingston-upon-Thames and Henrietta Barnet in Barnet). It would be fascinating to find out how they reached this apparently illogical position.

At the other end of the distribution, several secondary schools appear to be identifying all of their pupils as gifted and talented. This might be a reasonable interpretation of the last Government’s guidance in the case of selective schools like the Latymer School in Enfield, Queen Elizabeth’s Boys’ in Barnet, Parkstone Girls’ GS in Poole and St Ambrose College in Trafford.

It may be relatively less straightforward to justify in non-selective institutions like John Cabot Academy, South Gloucestershire and Whitburn C of E in South Tyneside. But of course we do not know whether such decisions have been taken on the basis of a clear rationale backed up by evidence, or whether they are simply ideological statements.

In the primary sector, it seems that about 2,500 schools, other than nursery schools, have not identified a single G&T learner. About 75% of those provide for KS2 pupils, aged 7-11 (Infants’ schools typically find the process more difficult because of the more limited evidence base available for younger children.)

At the other extreme, a few schools like Herne Bay Infant’s School and Westmeads Community Infants’ School, both in Kent, have apparently identified 100% of their pupils as G&T.

Key points and their causation

There has been no significant change in the composition of the G&T population. It remains the case that:

  • the gender balance is relatively good;
  •  the socio-economically disadvantaged are significantly under-represented;
  • the minority ethnic balance is broadly good, though there are some imbalances and these are particularly pronounced in the case of Chinese learners (heavily over-represented) and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage learners (heavily under-represented); and
  •  the EAL G&T and SEN G&T populations remain small but significant minorities

While schools are aware of the case for gender and minority ethnic balance, they continue to seem less secure in the case of socio-economic disadvantage. It is likely that the under-representation we see in some minority ethnic populations and amongst disadvantaged pupils is largely attributable to attainment differences. Schools are finding it hard to spot high potential where evidence of high attainment is not present.

The size of the SEN G&T population, including a significant proportion with statements, demonstrates that dual exceptionality is more prevalent than we might assume – and supports the case for some overt recognition of these learners in the Government’s special needs policies.

The overall fall in the size of the G&T population is disappointing, marking the first reverse in a historically upward trend. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is attributable, at least in part, to the declining influence of local authority G&T leads, regional G&T partnerships and national players, whether in the voluntary or public sectors.

There are fewer external influences encouraging schools to identify their G&T populations and less challenge for schools that are inclined to send in a nil return on this particular Census question.

However, the availability of the underlying school-level data provides an opportunity to draw attention to the significant number of schools that are saying they have no G&T pupils. That is perhaps easier to defend in schools that cater primarily for KS1 children (aged 5-7), but is less understandable in KS2 and especially in the secondary sector.

Conversely, few non-selective schools will be able to justify the inclusion of all their pupils on the gifted and talented register, unless they are actively ignoring or are unaware of the guidance issued under the previous Government.

The very variable decisions of grammar schools, with some clustered at either end of the distribution, is very curious. It would be interesting and instructive to compare their arguments for adopting their respective positions.

Some of those – grammar schools or otherwise – with logically questionable outcomes will undoubtedly be excellent schools, have their own better way of doing things and already secure the best possible results; others, however, may not have that defence.

The underlying question for the latter is whether their performance could be improved were they to invest more heavily in identifying hidden potential – and so potentially reduce top-end underachievement.


June 2011

An Epistolary Conversation about Gifted and Talented Education

Here is my response to the rather provocative letter about gifted and talented education published on the Informed Education Blog.

I fully expect the conversation to continue. I only ask that all respondents continue to use the epistolary form!

Dear Parent

We are writing to let you know that your daughter has been added to the School’s gifted and talented register.

This School believes that all of our pupils have gifts and talents and that it is our responsibility to work with their parents and carers to help each one to translate their potential into achievement.

Pupils are included in the gifted and talented register when there is evidence that they would benefit for the time being from personalised challenge and support to reach a high level of achievement in their areas of strength.

The provision we offer will help them to improve further in those areas while also ensuring that they continue to develop in any areas of relative weakness.

Because pupils do not progress at the same consistent rate, the gifted and talented register is kept under constant review. We expect pupils to remain on the register during periods when they are making relatively rapid progress, and to come off the register when and if that is no longer the case.

There is no special kudos in being included on the register and no negative implication in being removed from it.

The evidence we use to decide whether pupils are added to the register is set out in our Gifted and Talented Education Policy, available on the School’s website.

To summarise, we include all pupils who:

  • fall within the national top 5% on the basis of their most recent achievement data; or
  • while not yet achieving at this level, have shown that they are capable of doing so; or
  • already demonstrate equivalent high performance – or show the potential for such performance – in a vocational field, entrepreneurship, leadership, music, art or sport.

We draw on a wide range of quantitative and qualitative evidence, including several ability and attainment/performance measures, taking decisions on a ‘best fit’ basis. Full details are provided in the Policy Document.

We monitor the composition of our gifted and talented register, seeking to ensure that it broadly reflects the gender, ethnic and socio-economic composition of the wider School population.

We also monitor the inclusion of learners with special needs, those with English as an additional language and those who are summer-born. We are alive to the risk that particular groups may be over-represented in some areas of ability relative to others.

This is because we believe that ability (as opposed to achievement) is evenly distributed within the pupil population, so any under-representation may be evidence that we are failing to uncover hidden potential.

We would like to discuss with you how the School can best challenge and support your daughter while she is on the register. Following our meeting we will agree with you what distinct provision the School will make, or will secure from other providers, as part of our joint effort to meet her needs.

For the avoidance of doubt, we should emphasise that this support is not provided at the expense of those pupils who are not currently included on the register. They will continue to access the same high quality in-class and out-of-school opportunities that are currently available to them.

The support we offer to our gifted and talented pupils is commensurate to that we offer to all our pupils and is designed to ensure that they are not under-served relative to others. For we firmly believe that our gifted and talented learners have an equal right to an education that meets their needs.

We are not ashamed to call these learners gifted and talented, and to use those terms openly within the School, though we recognise that others have reservations about them. We leave it to them to find a more acceptable euphemism and, should a suitable alternative emerge, we may choose to adopt it.

But we regard this as a second order issue and prefer to concentrate all our efforts on providing the best possible education to these pupils, alongside all the other pupils in our School.

If you have any questions about the contents of this letter or about the implications for your daughter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best wishes

Leading Teacher for G&T


June 2011

School Vouchers and Gifted Education (Part Two)

In the first part of this Post we looked at school vouchers in theoretical terms before embarking on a detailed critique of the ‘Step Change’ proposals insofar as they impact on gifted learners.

Part Two concludes that critique, then broadens out the argument to take in other contexts and finally offers a preliminary framework for designing a viable gifted education voucher scheme.

The ‘Step Change’ Voucher

‘Step Change’ does not define specific objectives for the voucher scheme it proposes, other than to state that it will produce unspecified ‘measurably improved outcomes’, so it is not possible to trace how the various elements of the scheme are expected to impact on the two very different sets of problems that have been identified.

Following a rather cursory review of free schools in Sweden, charter schools in the US and academies in England (there is nothing on the Netherlands and Ireland as required by the terms of reference), it devotes much more space to a review of personalised education.

Although this section is rather confused, it does convey the central ideas that:

  • learning does not any longer take place exclusively in school and may involve a range of different providers;
  • a tailored programme can be captured in a personal learning plan that draws together these different elements into a coherent whole;
  • there is a potential role for ‘learning broker mentors’ to negotiate these plans with learners, secure provision against the plans from one or more providers and monitor and support learners’ progress.

This provides the central foundation for the eight-stage proposal that follows, which is expressed as a series of sequential steps in a voucher-driven process. The treatment below includes my commentary on the proposal:

First, learners are identified to participate in the programme on the basis of ‘National Standards and other age-based assessments’. We know that the Standards are not properly calibrated to identify G&T learners, showing only whether a learner is achieving at, above or below the expected standard for their age. The other assessments are unspecified. We are left unclear whether ‘gifted’ in this context is intended to denote high achievers but the reference to a fixed ‘quota’ of 5% might support this assumption.

Second, education providers are selected for the programme on the basis of their record of success, reputation for high quality leadership and teaching and capacity to deliver the specified outcomes. This must be assumed to apply to all kinds of providers covered by the scheme, whether or not they are schools. The wording implies that a high quality threshold will be imposed on the supply side from the outset, so we might expect a significant proportion of schools to be excluded on the basis of the ERO evidence. Later the report says that providers who fail to deliver will be dropped from the scheme. Capacity is clearly critical, especially for schools, since voucher holders will need to be accommodated alongside their existing students.

Third, the selected providers publish information (‘prospectuses’) about ‘how they lift and extend student performance’ including details of pedagogy, curriculum, IT, learner-teacher ratios ‘and other factors leading to student success and satisfaction’. This is to ensure that the demand side of the market has sufficient information to make sensible and rational decisions. As we have seen above, the media selected and the arrangements for dissemination of such material are critical, especially if the scheme is targeting ‘hard to reach’ families.

Fourth, voucher holders choose one or more providers who will meet their needs. The use of the term ‘provider’ allows for the possibility that none may be a school, eg in the case of home-educated learners. The drafting seems to suggest – rather sensibly – that, if a range of providers is involved, one must take the role of ‘principal provider’. Part of that role is to co-ordinate assessment and monitoring. There is to be scope for learners to change their provider(s) if their learning pathways change, but it is not clear how frequently such opportunities will be available.

Fifth, the selected provider(s) ‘sign up’ to the voucher holder’s personal learning plan. This formulation implies that the plan will have been prepared at an earlier stage in the process, but this is recognised only in three ‘optional steps’ which cover the selection of a leaning broker mentor. It is therefore unclear how and when the plan is prepared if no broker is involved. If the arrangements are such that the plan is drawn up by the school which then provides the bulk of the learning programme, that seems rather at odds with the principles of market choice, because the supply side has too much influence. For the system to work properly, there really needs to be ‘clear blue water’ between these two functions.

Sixth, providers receive a first tranche of the voucher payment ‘up front’. The value of the voucher (‘Step Change’ calls it a scholarship) is determined through a formula weighted to reflect the students’ needs. It will be necessary to remove funding from existing generic grants and reallocate it to voucher holders on a per capita basis. Reference is made to initial thinking on the design of the Pupil Premium in England – of which more later. We are told here and later that the scheme will be fiscally neutral – ie it will require no additional funding – but also that providers will ‘be incentivised by receiving more per capita than they currently receive’. It is hard to reconcile these two statements.

Dunedin courtesy of Zanthia

Seventh, the pupil’s performance is reviewed and assessed and the personal plan revised as appropriate. Monitoring information is collected into a central database which is accessible to all the users, including non-school providers. Data analysis may also inform professional development associated with the scheme.

Eighth, the provider(s) receive a second tranche of the fee as a ‘success bonus’ for:

‘substantially lifting the performance of low achieving students or gifted students to new levels’.

This is odd given that we thought we had already established that the problem to be addressed by the vouchers is not the performance of gifted students but the quality of the support provided to them by their schools.

It might be explained by making the assumption that students’ performance is the sole measure of their schools’ success, but we have already shown that New Zealand’s high achievers achieve their results in spite of the questionable support provided by a sizeable minority of their schools, so a much better success measure would be the proportion of providers judged to be of suitably high quality by ERO. The bonus would then depend on that assessment rather than on students’ performance.

It is not clear how the two payments would relate to the actual value of the voucher but I infer that the bonus would not be received unless the improvement is secured. Failure to deliver would therefore impact on the provider’s budget and, if sufficient learners were involved, could potentially put it out of business. The division of these payments between multiple providers would also be potentially problematic.

For all these reasons the bonus is a non-starter. Besides, the voucher concept rests on the assumption that sufficient incentive is generated by the increased demand from families for the most popular providers, so an added incentive in the shape of a financial bonus is not strictly necessary.

Because we are assured that the overall funding will be fiscally neutral, any additional costs, such as those attributable to the scheme’s administration and the potential employment of ‘broker learning mentors’ would need to be found from savings elsewhere in the education system. There is no costing whatsoever in the report so we have no idea how much this would cost compared with the current system.

The Report suggests that the scheme might support several different models of provision, eg ‘wrap around’ school-based provision, a school within a school, a school plus provision offered by independent providers, pupils working with several different providers, even one-to-one tuition.

It identifies implications for the recruitment and training of staff, especially the ‘learning broker mentors’. It anticipates that a range of new providers will enter the education system and that arrangements will need to be in place to facilitate the expansion of popular providers. There will also need to be a relaxation of the rules governing school admissions.

The text gets rather repetitive at this stage, before concluding with the proposal that a Taskforce is established to work up the initiative for implementation in 2011 (a pretty heroic timetable given the huge number of policy issues to be resolved and accommodations that would be necessary to get even a relatively small pilot scheme off the ground).

What does ‘Free to Learn’ add to the case for vouchers?

The companion minority report ‘Free to Learn’ has a much wider canvas which approximates more closely to the terms of reference given to the Working Group.

It considers the wider school choice reforms necessary to implement a universal voucher scheme: increased choice, increased autonomy for schools, improved teacher quality, capacity for the expansion of popular schools and the decline and closure of poorly performing schools, more and better information to support choice of school, freedom to choose between different schooling options and, finally, funding tied to the student.

This final section opens with a treatment of education reform through choice and competition which utilises many of the arguments outlined above:

‘The key, then, arguably, to improving education outcomes…is to permit public provision of schooling to be decentralised. It is to allow a competitive market in education and the funding to facilitate it; flexibility with ease of entry and exit for schools and learning environments; and families’ choice from among competing providers. Such a market flourishes when there are clear pricing signals for providers and the profit motive. Such a market also shifts education out of the hands of government quangos and into the hands of parents and teachers.’

It uses two of the three principles articulated by Mark Harrison in ‘Education Matters: Government Markets and New Zealand Schools’ (2004) to justify a neutral per capita funding scheme: schools are funded according to the number of learners they attract and the per capita sum is the same regardless of whether the school is public, private or integrated, so creating a ‘level playing field’ for market competition.

It considers the third principle – that parents should be allowed to top up this funding – to be ‘the most politically unpalatable’ and eventually discards it in favour of weighted funding to reflect students’ needs:

‘Governments weight scholarships for equity reasons to try to ensure that every child obtains a quality education. Recognising that some children are more difficult or costly to teach than others or require travel subsidies, central agencies add extra value to some of their scholarships in an attempt to increase the incentives for educators to take them’.

It suggests the decision is finely balanced since a weighted voucher arguably:

‘distorts the market making it difficult for providers to add improvements, ascertain their value and to meet the indicated demands of the people they serve…generating perverse incentives that keep those in need where they are because of the benefits accrued to them for remaining there’.

Following an analysis of current NZ funding arrangements and practice abroad, it devotes significant space to the consideration of tax credits as an alternative payment mechanism to a straightforward voucher scheme, but fails to choose between them.

There are no further practical details to add to the treatment in the main report.

Have gifted education voucher schemes been tried elsewhere?

Much of the preceding analysis is devoted to the not inconsiderable shortcomings of the IPWG’s work. Frankly, it is no surprise that this half-baked report failed to gain traction in New Zealand. But what of the case in principle for a gifted education voucher scheme?

I wondered whether the idea of targeting gifted learners came from an external source, or whether it originated with Heather Roy’s own personal interest in this issue. All the evidence suggests the latter, because there are no references in ‘Step Change’ or ‘Free to Learn’ to any existing schemes with such a focus.

NZ Bridge courtesy of Lockhear

I am personally aware of one near-precedent in the UK and, having sifted through the available online literature, I have traced just one further reference. So, unless readers of this post can tell us otherwise, it appears that there are no targeted voucher schemes explicitly designed to support gifted learners (as opposed to generic schemes that include them alongside other learners, or scholarship schemes that offer places only in private schools).

The single reference I have found is from an article published in 1998 by B D Baker called ‘Equity Through Vouchers: The Special Case of Gifted Education’

It argues that the widespread cuts then being made to free public sector gifted education services across the United States coincide with significant increases in fee-paying programmes, such as the residential summer programmes offered by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins and many other similar university-based providers.

These tend not to offer significant financial aid so the vast majority of attendees are from relatively advantaged backgrounds. As a consequence, many poor gifted students are denied any support. One solution would be to provide ‘wealth-equalised vouchers’ to enable gifted disadvantaged students to attend these out-of-school programmes (though it is questionable whether these would compensate for a year-round school-based programme).

Compared with the ‘Step Change’ proposal, such a scheme would have very narrow scope. It could be regarded as little more than a variant on private school scholarships, but it is at least an earlier exposition of the idea that vouchers can be deployed to support access by gifted learners to education provided outside a school setting.

Almost a decade later, the UK Government awarded a contract to CfBT – a private contractor – to support the out-of-school education of gifted and talented learners throughout England, then numbered at about 800,000.

CfBT’s initial ‘pitch’ for the contract was voucher-based, as demonstrated by these contemporary press reports, from the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian.

The nub of the proposal was that all learners identified by their schools as gifted and talented would receive, regardless of parental income or socio-economic background, an initial stock of 151 learning credits with a monetary value, to be used by their schools to purchase a range of additional learning opportunities from approved providers.

The reports suggest that £65 million would initially be allocated for this purpose with additional support drawn from the national budget for personalised learning.

The Telegraph says:

‘The scheme also introduces to schools for the first time the concept of “vouchers” as part of an education market in which pupils are the consumers and decide how and what they want to learn. It follows a decision by the Tories last month to drop plans for a full-blown voucher, in which parents would get £5,000 a year to spend at the school of their choice — state or private.’

I can’t say whether Ministers were attracted by the political advantages of ‘borrowing’ a policy previously espoused by (and closely associated with) the Conservative Opposition – it would not have been the first time if so.

I do know that the scheme did not proceed in line with the ‘pitch’ because, when it came to the crunch, the Government would not contemplate additional ringfenced funding on this scale for gifted education, particularly at a time when their wider policy was to create larger pools of generic funding that schools could use to address their own priorities.

Although the basic idea was retained for subsequent use in a smaller element of the overall programme – the City Challenge Gifted and Talented Scheme, designed to support progression by gifted disadvantaged young people aged 14-18 to competitive universities – it did not amount to a genuine voucher scheme.

More information about how CfBT’s programme developed is set out in their Memorandum to the Education Select Committee which examined gifted education in April 2010.

Both of these examples fall short of the ‘Step Change’ proposal because they do not extend into mainstream schooling, covering only the additional out-of-school activities that complement the normal classroom experience. Although it is riddled with inconsistencies and has major shortcomings, ‘Step Change’ does seem to break genuinely new ground.

Other targeted voucher schemes (and broadly similar funding models)

Several US voucher schemes have been targeted specifically at learners with special educational needs and disabilities.

According to this article four states—Florida (1999), Georgia (2007), Ohio (2003), and Utah (2005) operate schemes that together support over 22,000 students.

Most of these are scholarship schemes that allow parents to transfer their children into selected private sector institutions, but not all.

For example the Georgia scheme outlined here provides for learners who meet the eligibility criteria to request transfer to:

  • Another public school within their district;
  • Another public school district;
  • One of the three state schools for the visually or hearing-impaired; or
  • A private school within the programme.

The article makes clear that special education vouchers do not escape the criticisms levelled at vouchers more generally. But they do demonstrate that vouchers can be designed to support other groups of learners whose needs are not entirely met by the schools in which they are currently enrolled.

A similar strain of thinking has informed England’s recent Special Needs Green Paper, which commits to the further development of personal budgets for families of children with SEN and disabilities:

‘Personal budgets…will enable parents to have a much greater say in the way their child is supported and give them a clear role in designing a personalised package of support for their child and family…

…the Government is already testing approaches to personal budgets, through the personal health budgets pilots and the children’s individual budget pilots. The children’s individual budget pilots have given parents control over funding for elements of their child’s support. This involves a combination of notional budgets, where parents can say how the funding for their child is spent (but do not receive this in a cash payment), and direct payments, where they receive the cash for the services they need and can then purchase the support they need directly….

We want to build on the positive experiences of these pilots and extend the scope of what can be included in personal budgets in a way that is beneficial to families…In particular, we want the pilot areas to test whether any school-based services could be included, and to provide more evidence about the cost and impact of providing support in this way.’

While on the subject of UK reforms, I should also mention briefly the Pupil Premium, because it is referenced in the two New Zealand reports.

The original concept for the Premium has been described as a ‘positively discriminating voucher’ – a more equitable version of the free market voucher. But in its current form it is not strictly a voucher at all. It is a supply-side per capita payment to schools for each learner aged up to 16 who is eligible for free school meals. This year the payment is just £430 per student, but it is expected to increase to something over £1,500 by 2014-15.

Moreover, the money does not need to be spent exclusively on the learner who brings the entitlement. Schools are free to decide how to use the Premium payments they receive, including by bundling them together into a single purchase, though they will need to publish details of how they have been spent.

So the Pupil Premium is really a red herring in the context of this discussion, and it is time to draw the argument to a conclusion

Oceania New Zealand courtesy of Anita363

Key features of a workable gifted education voucher scheme

It is no easy task to pull these various strands together.

The commentary that follows is very much a work in progress. It offers some starting points for further discussion of the core elements within a workable gifted education voucher scheme, benefiting from the example offered by ‘Step Change’.

But it is tricky to get the tone exactly right. For, if the statements that follow are too generic and vague they will have little practical value. Conversely, they cannot be too specific, for every voucher scheme must be carefully designed to achieve SMART objectives that respond to identified needs in a given educational environment. It is not feasible to generate hard and fast rules with universal application.

‘Step Change’ offers the salutary lesson that the ‘problem’ a voucher scheme is designed to tackle must be very carefully pinned down. Its failure to engage with this essential groundwork ensures that the proposal it outlines is a house of cards.

I have divided the commentary into two sections: ‘upside’ captures the elements that seem to me to be relatively positive; ‘downside’ outlines the most significant problems that would need to be resolved, and for which I have only limited solutions.


Despite all its faults, ‘Step Change’ introduces the important idea that the increasingly fragmented nature of contemporary education provides a new and compelling justification for the introduction of vouchers.

A voucher is seemingly a good mechanism for funding a personalised education plan that draws together inputs from a range of different providers.

Gifted learners are amongst those least likely to have their needs fully met by the school at which they are enrolled. They are relatively more likely to access significant external enrichment and extension opportunities to supplement their core in-school learning experience.

A voucher would provide a mechanism to ensure that all eligible learners receive the same quantum of support, which is then divided as appropriate between these providers. So if the core provision from the learner’s own school covers 50% of the plan, it would receive 50% of the voucher’s total value.

If the value of the voucher is set at the same value as the average annual per capita cost of public schooling in the host education system, this will ensure that gifted learners do not receive preferential funding through the voucher,compared with their ineligible peers.

But if the voucher was set at this level it would be unlikely to match the fees at the majority of private schools, which are likely to be relatively higher. So if one wanted to introduce a fully transferable voucher, one would need to ensure that, when the voucher is deployed at a private school, the funding gap between the fees and the voucher is met. One way this might be achieved is through a means-tested bursary, with full scholarships available to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It should not be necessary to include in the policy design a system for financially penalising providers who fail to improve student outcomes and rewarding those who succeed. It would be complex to attribute responsibility for a student’s success or failure between several different providers. If results are published openly, it would be sufficient to rely on the market to deliver reward through increased numbers attracted to successful provision.

A gifted education voucher may be a valid policy response to the reduction or even the removal of funding from many public sector gifted education programmes – part of the squeeze on public expenditure now enforced in many countries around the world.

The elimination of poor quality publicly-funded gifted education may be no bad thing. Parents of gifted learners are often persistent critics of the quality of gifted education and support in the schools their children attend. Parent participants in #gtchat complain that their children’s teachers are inadequately trained, the leadership is unresponsive to parental concerns and the school ethos is concentrated not on educational excellence but on bringing all students up to the same minimum level of achievement.

If the market mechanism works properly, a gifted education voucher scheme will widen choice, enabling the families of gifted learners to ‘vote with their feet’. Funding will be concentrated on the most effective providers, who will expand, while poorer providers will go to the wall. So supply-side funding should end up being concentrated on the best providers rather than being used to subsidise poor and good providers alike.

A voucher scheme can also be used as an instrument of equity, targeting limited public funding at those from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to meet the costs of private sector provision. This may reduce the deadweight cost associated with provision for all students regardless of income – those that can afford to pay from their own pockets will still do so.

Developing this equity argument further, gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds – including twice exceptional learners – have a double justification for voucher support. This might be addressed by weighting the voucher, as suggested in ‘Step Change’ to reflect their additional needs, perhaps by adding a flat rate per capita addition along the lines of the Pupil Premium. If the weighting reflected that which already applied to existing per capita school funding, gifted disadvantaged students would continue to receive exactly the same level of support as their disadvantaged peers.

The additional weighted funding available to gifted disadvantaged learners might be used to meet the cost of additional support, designed to equip them with the skills, aspirations, social and cultural capital of their more advantaged peers, helping to address the ‘excellence gap’ and strengthening social mobility through improved progression to university and on into professional careers.

Returning to the impact on the supply side, a voucher scheme should lead to a situation where some schools in both the public and private sectors would emerge as specialist centres of excellence in core delivery.

A wider range of providers, including universities, private sector businesses, charitable foundations – could be expected to compete with schools, especially as ‘non-core, providers, offering a choice of face-to-face, blended and online out-of-school learning opportunities.

Schools themselves would be likely to invest more significantly in out-of-school provision for gifted learners, so that they could recoup income potentially lost to competing providers. Collaborative arrangements would emerge enabling gifted students to spend part of their time in other schools within a network or partnership – and the partnership might offer joint out-of-school opportunities to all their gifted students.

Productive partnerships would also be likely to emerge between schools and other providers. For example, a group of schools could work with a university to enable school-aged gifted learners to take courses at undergraduate level.

Auckland by Night courtesy of Light Knight


It is all too easy to design a scheme that does not reach the students who most need support. The market will always favour those equipped to make rational choices and act on them. Strong safeguards are needed to ensure that any given scheme does not become dominated by learners from relatively advantaged backgrounds, or even the ‘impoverished middle classes’.

It might be a requirement that the proportion of disadvantaged gifted learners engaged in the programme broadly reflects their wider distribution in their school or local authority. Crude quotas would be avoided, but arrangements should embody the principle that ability is evenly distributed throughout the population, whether by gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background.

But it is arguably the case that any market-driven model will leave behind the hardest-to-reach, because the safeguards we can introduce will not address the fundamental problem of low aspirations, low expectations and disengagement amongst some elements of the learner population.

It is also necessary to contain the additional central costs associated with a scheme, particularly the financial management of voucher payments and the ‘learning broker mentor’ role which seems essential to the successful implementation of a programme that brings together several different providers.

Some central funding will have to be devoted to providing the necessary quality assurance systems, a management information system and thorough formative and summative evaluation. There is also further cost attributable to the additional places that have to be maintained in the system to allow choice to operate.

Part of this extra cost might be recouped by charging all approved providers a relatively modest subscription in return for their inclusion in the programme. But it will not be feasible to achieve a fiscally neutral scheme if all these elements are included in the balance sheet.

Thirdly, and most problematic of all, is how to avoid a negative impact on students not selected for the programme, particularly if they are stuck in schools denuded of their gifted peers.

One might make a case that such negative peer effects would be balanced and potentially outweighed by the additional attention the school can now give to addressing the needs of the remaining, more homogeneous population.

The more fundamental question is whether selection and ‘labelling’ for inclusion in a voucher scheme would inevitably put a brake on the whole system’s capacity to develop excellence in the maximum proportion of its learners.

The answer may depend on your personal philosophy of gifted education – and how you position yourself against the three polarities I identified in this early post.

Last words

I conclude that a targeted voucher scheme could potentially form a valuable element of a more holistic policy to improve the quality of gifted education, though it would be unlikely to work as a solitary measure.

If the purpose is to improve the quality of supply side provision, as seems to be the case in New Zealand, the market effects of a voucher might usefully be supplemented by collaborative efforts to disseminate and embed effective practice across the system, provided that competition and collaboration can co-exist.

It is unlikely that any voucher scheme can rid itself entirely of some of the negative effects outlined above, so a decision to proceed would depend on a judgement that the potential benefits outweigh the disbenefits.

From time to time, vouchers rise back to the top of the agenda in different parts of the world. It may be that Prime Minister Key’s response to ‘Step Change’ means that they are now off limits in New Zealand, although they may perhaps reappear on the other side of the General Election, depending on the outcome.

For the time being in England the Liberal Democrat element of the Coalition will probably ensure that any voucher proposals are ‘translated’ into something more palatable to their supporters, although this story from November 2010 shows that proponents of the pure voucher concept still nurse their ambitions.

Although the term itself has not appeared in recent policy documents and consultations on school funding reform, it would not be impossible for ‘real vouchers’ to be introduced on top of existing reforms at a later date, should our politics lurch to the Right.

But it is in the USA where interest in vouchers remains at its strongest. Perhaps we should look in that direction for the the first substantive pilot of vouchers targeted at gifted learners.

Meanwhile, all credit to the ‘Step Change’ working group for generating such food for thought from a distinctly dodgy report!


June 2011

School Vouchers and Gifted Education (Part One)

It’s a great honour to be included in the Blog Tour celebrating New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week 2011. This post, which is Kiwi-inspired, considers whether school vouchers could be an effective tool to improve gifted education.

I ought to begin with a health warning, intended for those who may encounter this post outside its normal environment. Gifted Phoenix defies some of the standard blogging conventions, in that the posts are typically long and rather complex.

My idealised imaginary reader has an informed, possibly academic or professional interest in gifted education and is attracted by evidence-based argument, thorough analysis and synthesis of existing online material and an effort to offer a different perspective, occasionally even to inject some small element of new thinking.

Put another way, Gifted Phoenix posts are a touch idiosyncratic, an acquired taste, not everyone’s cup of tea, maybe just the tiniest bit…Aspergery.

This one is no exception.

Why Vouchers?

To add insult to injury, I’ve chosen for your delectation a topic that offers no hint of empathy or practical support to those wrestling daily with the challenges presented by the education and parenting of gifted learners.

While researching a short piece on gifted education in New Zealand – part of a series I’ve been writing for G&T Update(£) on gifted education worldwide – I re-encountered the two reports produced in February 2010 by Heather Roy’s Inter-Party Working Group (IPWG) for School Choice.

I’d scanned them when they were first published but hadn’t really engaged with them properly. As far as I could establish from this distance, they met with a fair degree of hostility from the professional audience in New Zealand, but otherwise sank without trace.

For, on the same August day that Roy was sacked from her posts as Associate Education Minister and Deputy ACT Party Leader, New Zealand’s Prime Minister quietly let it be known that the IPWG’s recommendations had also bitten the dust.

The school choice debate is politically polarised. It is rare to find a balanced treatment of the arguments for and against because we tend to adopt our different positions on ideological grounds.

The IPWG reports were pro-voucher propaganda, typically selective in their use of evidence, but were also quite rightly criticised for failing to address many of the practical implications of the reforms they proposed. So, like everyone else, I pretty much dismissed them.

But, this time round, I paused over the innovative proposal for a voucher scheme targeted specifically (but not exclusively) at gifted learners. I began to consider more seriously whether such a scheme might help to address the issues currently facing gifted education in New Zealand, England and many other countries around the world.

I was also curious to find out how far the academic debate on education vouchers had moved on since I last engaged with it seriously, back in the 1980s.

So this post will examine the IPWG proposal in that wider context, explore the arguments for and against vouchers – hopefully in an even-handed and non-partisan fashion – make connections with related English education policy and, finally, offer some starting points for the development of a viable gifted education voucher scheme.

As I write this introduction I feel like an experimental chemist, about to mix two highly combustible elements that are not normally forced together. The compound created by the ‘V’ word and the ‘G’ word may be extremely unstable, even potentially toxic.

It won’t be a panacea; it could have sufficient potential to warrant further consideration. Or maybe you were right first time and it’s merely a damp squib that should have been left to fizzle out.

NZ Parliament Building courtesy of wiifm

What are vouchers and what are they for?

Education vouchers are a funding instrument, normally advocated by those who believe that a competitive, market-based approach is more likely to deliver quality and efficiency across the education system.

They contend that government-led education is monopolistic and bureaucratic – inherently unresponsive to the various and rapidly changing needs of parents as consumers – and inefficient because there is too little incentive to control costs.

Vouchers are a mechanism for distributing to families public funding for the education of their children. A proportion of education funding is tied to the individual learner and typically channelled through the demand side of the market, instead of being paid as a block grant on the supply side.

Parents and learners choose which schools will benefit from their custom, so they have much more influence on the education they provide. The balance of power switches away from the supply side and towards the family as consumers.

The proponents – I will call them ‘the centre’ (convenient shorthand for the body or bodies responsible for the education system in question) – must decide to what extent they wish to regulate the market they have created. This they can do by superimposing a selection of ‘checks and balances’.

These will impact on parents’ free choice of schools and/or on schools’ freedom to deliver a distinctive educational offer to the maximum number of learners.

The exercise of choice depends critically on popular schools having the flexibility to expand in response to greater demand from parents for places. Since overall demand is relatively fixed (determined by the total number of learners in the system) it follows that less popular schools will contract. If they become unsustainable they will ultimately close unless the ‘checks and balances’ prevent this.

Supply side flexibility will be controlled by the continued imposition of any universal requirements that are judged necessary to protect standards. They will include the framework set in place to hold schools accountable for their performance. This typically sets out arrangements for inspection and review, and for the publication of performance data, both of which also help to inform school choice decisions on the demand side.

There may also be requirements or incentives for schools to collaborate for the purpose of system-wide improvement. But there is inevitably a tension between competition and collaboration.

The circle is squared if it can be demonstrated that successful schools are driving up their own standards while also improving – rather than damaging – standards in their competitors. Although it is sometimes argued that competition alone can drive system-wide improvement, a judicious blend of competition and collaboration may be more successful, provided that it can be made to work.

But, if improvements in one school invariably result in falling standards elsewhere in the system, opponents of a market-driven approach will quite rightly object that the overall impact on system-wide standards is undermined, especially if the distribution of high quality provision continues to favour learners from advantaged backgrounds.

It is relatively rare now to find educators in advanced education systems who support a rigid, top-down ‘command and control’ system that tightly prescribes the freedom of schools. This method of ensuring that every learner in every school achieves a defined national educational standard is more associated with developing systems.

So this is not really a debate between proponents of two polarised approaches. Since the majority accept that market forces are helpful to some degree, the real issue is how to secure the right balance between market forces and market regulation.

Vouchers are wrongly regarded as a kind of badge or label denoting the more extreme market-driven models, but the reality is that voucher systems can support very different degrees of marketisation.

The arguments for and against vouchers

It follows from the point above that the advantages and disadvantages of a voucher scheme will depend on the particular design of that scheme and whether it is achieving the outcomes it was intended to achieve.

One cannot reasonably extend to all vouchers the benefits and disbenefits identified in the evaluations of specific schemes. Nor can one assume that the theoretical pros and cons will apply to each and every real-life scheme.

That said, a brief resume of the standard arguments for and against vouchers will provide helpful context for the remainder of this post, allowing us to take a more rounded view of the IPWG’s proposals.

Some of the arguments in favour have already been touched on in the previous section and I will not repeat them here. But the proponents of vouchers will also assert that:

  •  Parents from disadvantaged backgrounds should not have their choice of school limited to lower-performing public sector institutions in which their children are already concentrated (because more advantaged families typically secure the available places in higher-achieving schools or else pay for private education). Since these parents normally have limited opportunity to exercise meaningful choice, they are empowered by voucher schemes. The consequent redistribution of learners strengthens inclusion and cohesion and promotes social mobility.
  • When voucher-bearing learners move from a low-performing school to a higher-performing school, they achieve more highly because they are exposed to higher-quality teaching and benefit from learning alongside higher-achieving peers. This narrows achievement gaps between rich and poor and so improves educational standards overall.
  •  The market generates efficiency and drives up performance across the system as good schools strive to keep their market share and poorer schools strive to improve or face closure. In the case of transfer to the private sector, private schools can often provide a personalised education at lower cost because they do not have to meet expensive centrally-imposed requirements (various of the ‘checks and balances’) that apply across the public sector.

Auckland courtesy of Sids 1

Those opposed to vouchers will respond that:

  • Take-up is typically dominated by motivated learners from families with strong educational aspirations. Because they do not tackle the underlying issue of low educational aspiration, vouchers tend to increase the segregation of poor students with relatively less motivation and less parental support. They are left behind in the low-performing public sector schools and no longer benefit from the proximity of their higher-aspiring peers. Choice is further limited because the families who most need the support are least able to afford to move house or meet the cost of transport to another school. They are also least likely to access information about such schemes in the first place. As a result, vouchers may actually increase achievement gaps between rich and poor, so pulling down standards overall.
  •  Parents may not choose schools on the basis of educational standards, particularly if they do not access or give relatively little weight to school performance data. They may be more influenced by geographical proximity, local reputation, the attendance of friends and family. They may be disinclined to select schools with low proportions of learners from similar backgrounds or from their own minority ethnic group. In any case, it is not always possible to judge reliably in which school a particular pupil will achieve the best outcomes.
  • Vouchers weaken the public sector as a whole because, other than in quasi-voucher schemes (see ‘types of voucher schemes’ below) they divert resources away from it and into the private sector. Because accountability is less strong in the private sector, taxpayers’ money can be misused, or it can be applied in educational settings to which taxpayers might reasonably object. Overall costs will increase as private sector recipients become over-reliant on voucher funding. Administrative costs of the voucher scheme must also be factored in, as well as the cost of maintaining an over-supply of school places to enable the market to operate.
  •  Schools that lose students as a consequence of vouchers may find it hard to turn round their performance. Whereas a commercial operation might ditch non-core business, relocate to a cheaper building or change its suppliers, none of these options is available to a school. In practice, the closure of schools is not straightforward. If families and staff offer resistance, this creates additional political and economic costs.

The pragmatic and rather simplistic conclusion I draw from this argument is that an effective voucher scheme must get as close as possible to securing the advantages whilst making every effort to avoid the disadvantages. There may not be such a thing as a perfect voucher scheme, but a really good scheme will have the minimum of unintended, negative consequences.

This creates significant implications for key aspects of any scheme’s design, such as:

  • The rules governing eligibility;
  • How information about the scheme is disseminated, especially to those least likely to access it;
  • Whether parents must opt in or opt of a scheme;
  • How vouchers are allocated if demand exceeds supply;
  • The monetary value of the voucher and whether means-testing is applied;
  •  Whether receiving schools have any control over the voucher holders they take in;
  • Whether there are costs not covered by the voucher and, if so, how those are met;
  •  How lower-performing schools are managed (to improve or to close)
  • The overall costs of the voucher scheme – including the full administrative cost – and, of course,
  •  The SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound) objectives the particular scheme is designed to achieve.

Different kinds of voucher

The design of a voucher scheme is, in itself, part of the system of ‘checks and balances’. For example, the centre can regulate the market by providing vouchers to those learners who meet specific criteria, or by imposing restrictions on where vouchers can be spent, so insuring against market effects deemed undesirable.

Different kinds of voucher scheme have been developed for different contexts:

  • Universal schemes (sometimes called full schemes) are introduced across all schools in an education system, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sectors;
  •  Scholarship schemes support learners currently educated in the public sector to attend private sector schools (and are often designed specifically for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds);
  • Quasi-voucher schemes operate only in public sector schools, acting as a redistributive mechanism by increasing pupil numbers in popular schools at the expense of those that are relatively less popular;
  •  Targeted schemes are for a defined subset of learners, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those with special educational needs or, indeed, those identified as gifted and talented.

This post is not directly concerned with universal schemes which, by definition, are designed to cater for all students in all schools. Nor is it concerned with scholarship models, although they account for a relatively large proportion of the voucher schemes currently under way in different parts of the world.

I want to concentrate on targeted schemes that select eligible pupils at least partly on the basis of academic ability or academic achievement but which operate across the public and private sectors, or (as quasi-vouchers) in the public sector only.

Heather Roy courtesy of cleOpatra

The Inter-Party Working Group (IPWG) for School Choice

As Kiwi readers will know, a minority National Government was elected in New Zealand in November 2008. The National Party did not establish a formal coalition but instead formed ‘Confidence and Supply Agreements’ with three smaller parties: ACT, the Maori Party and United Future.

The agreement between ACT and the National Party included provision for a report on

‘policy options relating to the funding and regulation of schools that will increase parental choice and school autonomy.’

So a Working Group was convened in April 2009, comprising representatives of the National Party, ACT and the Maori Party under the Chairmanship of Heather Roy.

The terms of reference were to:

  • ‘Review school funding and examine options that will reduce central control and treat all schools on a more equal basis according to enrolments;
  • Consider whether funding mechanisms should include alternative arrangements for special factors(eg transport, special needs) and decile funding, and for additional fees;
  • Review enrolment scheme policy and other regulations which may limit parental choice and the ability of schools to respond to parental demand;
  • Examine the concept of trust schools and other models which might facilitate greater self management and innovation, and the registration and accountability mechanisms for such schools that might accompany the relaxation of detailed controls;
  •  Consider the interface elements of the education system such as Maori education, school property, school transport, special education and the Correspondence School with a more choice-oriented system; and
  • Review policies in other countries, in particular Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland, for lessons that may be relevant to the Working Group’s task.’

In the event, the Group could not agree how to address all of the items on this agenda and so produced two separate reports. The main report is called ‘ Step Change: Success the Only Option’ but there is also a much longer minority report called ‘Free to Learn’ which carries the signatures of the two ACT members: Roy herself and Sir Roger Douglas.

The preface to the minority report describes the relationship between the two in the following terms:

Free to Learn shares the chief concerns of Step Change: Success the Only Option, the final report of the IPWG. It commends Step Change: Success the Only Option for its emphasis on New Zealand’s poorest performing (20 percent) students and its gifted and talented (5 percent) students.

 Beyond this, however, Free to Learn holds that the recommendations in Step Change: Success the Only Option will have much greater impact if the remaining 75 percent of New Zealand students are allowed to benefit from them. Freedom of choice for parents, school innovation, better results and cost savings as a result of competition should be available to every New Zealander.’

So ‘Free to Learn’ is advocating a universal voucher scheme, whereas ‘Step Change’ is recommending a targeted scheme. Whereas ‘Free to Learn’ draws significantly (and rather one-sidedly) on the international evidence base, the main report barely references it. Indeed the main report is markedly narrow in scope – it does not properly address any of the terms of reference given above.

Nor does ‘Step Change’ propose its targeted scheme as a formal pilot for the universal scheme recommended in ‘Free to Learn’ (and it is arguable whether it could properly operate as a pilot given that its target groups are likely to have somewhat different needs to the bulk of the school-age population) but simply declares, with some naivety:

‘If the initiative is successful it can be extended to the remaining 75 percent of New Zealand students’.

I have no insight into the internal discussion and disagreement that prevented the working group from producing a single report. Perhaps some Kiwi readers may be able to shed more light on this.

It would be particularly interesting to understand the rationale that led the non-ACT members to support vouchers for gifted and low-attaining learners, but to oppose their universal application. Presumably they must have been convinced that vouchers were relatively better suited to meeting the needs of the two minority groups. But neither report addresses this issue. Perhaps it was simply a political compromise and the educational arguments were irrelevant.

The target groups for the proposed ‘Step Change’ vouchers?

‘Step Change’ begins with a brief review of the performance of the New Zealand education system, focusing particularly on either end of the achievement spectrum. It concentrates on the 20% lowest-achieving and ‘the top 5% who are gifted and talented’ (without defining the latter apart from specifying a 6-16 age range).

There is no justification whatsoever for the choice of either of these two percentages. The 5% figure for the gifted and talented may be more correctly interpreted as an achievement measure rather than an ability measure, but there is no clue beyond the choice of a fixed percentage.

These two groups are of course very different, with markedly different needs. The report identifies them as equally deserving of support, but its very different approach to the diagnosis of their predicaments is revealing.

The lowest-achieving 20% are defined exclusively by low student performance, against NCEA levels 1 and 2 (those not achieving Level 2 are dismissed by the Report as ‘this failing 33%’). There is specific reference to the significant proportions of Maori and Pasifika students who did not achieve NCEA level 1.

Conversely, the focus on gifted students is not justified by evidence of their underachievement, as one might expect, but by poor school-based provision and support:

‘The Education Review Office (ERO) has found that provision is highly responsive and appropriate in only one in five schools, with 58 percent of schools, programmes and provisions being either somewhat or not appropriate and responsive.’

This is in fact an incorrect reference to the 2008 Report from ERO ‘Schools’ Provision for Gifted and Talented Students’. The table on page 25 of this report shows that provision is ‘highly appropriate and responsive’ in only 5% (one in 20) schools, not 20% as suggested by ‘Step Change’.

It is responsive and appropriate in a further 37%, ‘somewhat responsive and appropriate in 41% and ‘not responsive and appropriate’ in 17% (the two latter giving the 58% figure).

It is not clear why this indicator is singled out from the other four that ERO considered, and why the Report did not rely instead on the overall findings:

Wellington courtesy of

  • 17% percent of schools had good provision across all five areas;
  • 48% had good provision in some areas but not others; and
  • 35% did not have good provision in any of the five areas.

But the bigger issue is the decision to ignore pupil performance evidence in the case of gifted learners. It could potentially be explained by the lack of national achievement statistics for a properly identified gifted and talented population, but the (admittedly imperfect) proxy offered by the results of high achievers would surely have been better than nothing.

Then again, it would be problematic to use those results to support a claim that vouchers would help to secure a much-needed improvement in the achievement of gifted learners.

For the inconvenient truth is that New Zealand’s high achievers are performing very well indeed, especially when compared with their peers in other countries.

This was acknowledged by Education Minister Anne Tolley following the publication of PISA 2009:

‘”We have a lot to be proud of, as this study confirms our top students are among the best in the world,” says Mrs Tolley…

Our challenge is to work together to address the issues raised in the report.

New Zealand continues to have a disproportionate number of lower achievers, and this hasn’t changed in the past nine years”’.

My own analysis of PISA data on the performance of high achievers confirms that New Zealand’s high achievers are outperforming most other countries, including England’s, particularly in maths and science.

So, on the basis of this evidence, one can only conclude that those gifted students in New Zealand who are also high achievers produce very high levels of performance in spite of the limited support offered to gifted and talented learners by one-third of New Zealand schools.

This is a serious issue for ‘Step Change’ because it begs the question whether a single voucher scheme can be designed to meet the markedly different circumstances impacting on the two different ends of the target population.

If the primary objective for the low-achieving 20% is to improve their personal achievement, while the primary objective for the gifted 5% is to improve the quality of support provided to them by their schools, then – arguably at least – a single scheme would be too crude an instrument to address both these issues simultaneously.

If we accept that voucher schemes are not a panacea and need to be designed carefully to address specific policy problems, then it would be far better to create a separate customised scheme for the gifted 5%.

But ‘Step Change’ is far from consistent on the critical question of what exactly the gifted element of the scheme is supposed to achieve, as we shall see next time.

In Part Two…

The arguments advanced in ‘Step Change’ have already begun to unravel under this initial scrutiny, but it may still be possible to salvage a reasonable case in principle for introducing vouchers for New Zealand’s gifted learners.

In Part Two of this post we will explore whether the central voucher proposal in ‘Step Change’ is likely to address the identified problem. Then we can position this analysis in a wider international and historical context. Finally we can consider whether the accumulated evidence provides a basis for some guiding principles for a workable gifted education voucher scheme.


June 2011