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

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