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

3 thoughts on “School Vouchers and Gifted Education (Part One)

  1. Aspergery is one of the very best kinds, as it happens! Thanks for an enlightening post, as always. About the middle of next week as life returns to normal I shall return at my leisure and do more than skim. Great to have you on the blog tour!

  2. Alert: these posts take atleast two read throughs, but are always worth it! I make sure to have a separate window open at … just in case! This was brilliant to post on issues of importance in New Zealand considering their celebration of Gifted Awareness Week 2011. This is an idea that needs to go viral ~ to spread to all countries. Great job, GP!

  3. Thanks Lisa. I suppose the advantage of writing long, hard-to-understand posts is that readers keep having to come back to visit this Blog over and over again!

    Seriously though, I was really surprised that – as far as I can establish – there are and have never been any voucher schemes targeted at gifted learners, other than those (like our own Assisted Places Scheme) that offer scholarships into the private sector. Although I’ve rather demolished the ‘Step Change’ report that recommended their introduction, I do take my hat off to the authors for suggesting the idea.

    Perhaps in the years to come, someone somewhere will read these posts and be inspired to try out the concept for real!

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