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Vouchers in education debate

  • May 27th, 2008

Last night’s VUW Debating Society debate was a pleasure. I’m tired of “celebrity debating” and debates where witty insult crowds out genuine dialectic.

So it was good to see 6 people earnestly trying to persuade the audience of the rights and wrongs of parental choice in education.

For those against choice – John Minto’s envy and bitterness came through all his attempts to lighten up.  The Principal’s Association contribution led me to hope that they’ve given up the struggle and don’t mind being seen to go through the motions. Grant Robertson showed some debating talent until he had to go back to his dreary Party instruction notes, which did not seem to convince him either.

On the pro-choice side – Roger Kerr was informative, as could be expected and Heather Roy MP showed ACT’s usual creative use of props (vouchers were distributed, called ‘scholarships’).

The star was Stephen Whittington.  I’d love to see how he’d have gone taking the negative. Part of his effectiveness was  conviction, so it would be fascinating to see how much of that advocacy skill would survive arguing for a hopeless case.

The audience questions at the end probed (ineffectively) the tender spot in the argument on both sides – whether free choice would diminish or increase the assumed social cohesion effect of public schooling. That theory lay behind the US Supreme Court’s now discredited ruling in favour of school bussing.

The negative implicitly asserted that more choice would increase today’s divisions among schools on wealth lines. It is hard to see how. Education choice today is strictly on mortgage servicing capacity. What neither side teased out were the poosible effects on divisions on ethnic, religious or other class lines. Should parents be free to choose a Madrasseh, where the kids could learn little more than that killing infidels is the route to heaven?

The pro-choice speakers should have been forced by the negative to say whether they thought there was a legitimate  community interest in limiting that kind of market ‘specialisation”. On the other side the anti-choice team should have been forced to explain why, if that concern is  legitimate, they’re tolerating the disastrous current stratification on decile lines, and  the current education philosphy that simply excuses or disguises failure. 

I see no reason for our present state schools to claim they’re part of the solution to social splintering. Zoning is  energetically hacking at the foundations of our classless society. NCEA guarantees that the old school tie will gain increasing importance, as employers cease to rely on the “objective” credential. But even assuming that schools were maintaining our egalitarian socialisation, at what point should that objective transcend the parent’s right to choose what their kids learn, and with whom? That is the true choice question.

Judging from last night, the left, and especially the teaching establishment, is too poorly educated even to frame the questions, let alone pursue the arguments.


  • Deborah Coddington
  • May 27th, 2008
  • 12:55 pm

On the question, “should parents be free to choose a Madresseh…” – when I visited The Netherlands researching my book, “Let Parents Choose”, freedom in that country definitely did not extend to allowing parents choice to choose such an education. And The Netherlands is increasingly staring down the problem of fanatical Islamist immigrants. Just as freedom of speech does not allow the shouting of Fire in a crowded theatre, when no such fire exists, so parental choice in education does not allow the freedom to educate children to kill. Even Adam Smith agreed that parents should not be free to withhold education from their children, as that would be a form of child abuse, in that they would not grow into responsible, self-supporting, independent adults.

  • Paul Williams
  • May 27th, 2008
  • 5:23 pm


You characterisation of the debate is interesting but not more so than your absence from it. I can read ACT’s policy online, I can’t read National’s. Perhaps you can tell me what you might have said?


I don’t agree with the voucher system. It will ruin education for everyone – such a silly idea all round. Teachers get a real hard time these days and they don’t deserve it.

  • Mike
  • May 27th, 2008
  • 7:43 pm

When schools recieved more applications than they had space for, how would they decide which students to take? Woudl you agree that a ballot is the best way to deal with this?

  • Deborah Coddington
  • May 27th, 2008
  • 8:32 pm

When schools receive more applications than they have space for, they should be allowed to establish another campus, or take over a school to which parents do not want to send their children. This happens in pre-school education in New Zealand right now, and to a certain extent in tertiary – look how Massey has taken over other tertiary institutions, and the world didn’t end.
We allow parents to choose their family doctor, their house, their car – but for some reason we patronisingly believe they are incapable of choosing which school is best for their children. It’s classic Big Brother.
BigGirlsBlouse, you need to specify why the voucher system would “ruin education for everyone” and why it’s a “silly idea”. No, teachers do not deserve a hard time, neither do bank clerks, retailers, artists, plumbers, farmers, used car salesmen, and so on. What do you propose to make their lives easier? Nationalise them? Bring them under the public service system?

  • Paul Williams
  • May 28th, 2008
  • 12:33 pm

Deborah, perhaps you might first make the case for the voucher system? NZ school system has recently improved its performance by international measures and the only NZ study I’m aware of on vouchers suggests they’ll have limited benefit.

Can you tell me how vouchers would improve educational outcomes in NZ? Can you tell me how vouchers for school education would avoid the problems vouchers for tertiary education created – they’re the ones that National was decrying recently; fadish, low-value, low-labour market benefit courses in twighlight golf for instance.

Stephen, any chance you’ll venture a view? It’s great that you have a forum where the ACT party line is promoted, but what about National’s?

  • Deborah Coddington
  • May 28th, 2008
  • 4:47 pm

Paul, there’s no guarantee that vouchers would improve education “outcomes”, and that’s not why I support them, although Swedish and Dutch research shows that is a result. But other factors contribute to successful education outcomes, for instance parental involvement, teacher expectations, etc. I support vouchers because I believe all parents should have choice, not just those who have the financial capacity to buy or rent a house “in zone”. When I was on the board of trustees at Epsom Girls’ Grammar, because I was a journalist I was designated the filthy task of checking addresses were genuine. Unfortunately, many were not, but the parents were breaking the rules for the right reasons. Inevitably they were parents from south Auckland, who did not want to send their girls to the nearest school, and wanted what they saw as a good education for their girls. Of course, people like John Minto would argue EGGS education is no better than, say, Tamaki College, but these are not his girls; it’s not for him to dictate to the parents where they should send their girls to school, is it?
Imagine if New World supermarket in Remuera started booting out any customers who drove in from Mangere to buy goods which were not stocked in the New World in Mangere. There’d be an outcry.
Anyway, I could go on for ever but if you’re interested, I can send you a copy of my book, Let Parents Choose, for free. Just email me at

[…] Stephen Franks blogs on the debate […]

  • Paul Williams
  • May 28th, 2008
  • 7:24 pm

Deb, I’ve no doubt you’re sincere in your views and I respect the fact that you’ve done real work in the sector. I’ve also worked in the sector, both in NZ and in Australia, and have yet to see evidence showing the quality of learning is enhanced by vouchers.

I’m very familiar with EGGS and understand the perverse behaviour created some enrolment schemes where there is a geographical zone (my younger sister missed out on getting into EGGS but went to the excellent nearby Baradene). I’ve also seen the perverse situation where kids can’t get into their local school.

It seems to me that there’s many ways to make schools both more inclusive and more accountable without adopting vouchers. Moreover, I think the way in which NZ schools operate compares very favourably with many many systems (ERO, the role of Boards and autonomy of principals particularly).

I’m actually not against vouchers per se – I’m not ideological about many policies actually – but I’m far from convinced that they’re the panacea often claimed. There’s simply more to what determines a good school than it’s comparative status though I agree parental support is vital.

Thanks for the offer of your book (I did flick through it a while back). I’ll send you my details.

I’m still very interested to hear what Stephen’s views are and why? My suspicion is that he will not likely feel particularly fond of what National finally says.

  • Peter
  • July 21st, 2009
  • 7:38 pm

Heather Roy is trying to resurrect the vouchers again I see.

I think I know the reason that Paul Williams may be right.

The subtext of “parents can choose” is really “parents will choose from what they can AFFORD”

As Deborah Coddington so aptly pointed out in her book, the rich find ways to get what they want in Education, no matter what the system.

Relabelling Southern Cross Campus in Mangere “Auckland Grammar – Mangere” would not do it for me. In all probability the few academics would be shipped into Epsom, and all the special needs and others would be shipped to a Trade Academy in Mangere!

Rathkeale College recently provided a useful example. In addtion to the $2,000 per annum fee to attend this integrated school, parents were virtually required to provide $4,000 per annum “donation”.

When a parent bucked the gentlemen’s agreement, all hell broke loose. She was told she had not choice.

How do I know I am right? It is because I know how the rich and powerful citizens will react to half-baked schemes that stand to lower their property values!

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