Although it’s almost invariably tagged in the media as “right-wing”, the Centre for Independent Studies (disclosure: I used to work there) tries hard to appear politically impartial. Its current “Policymakers” series therefore features six federal MPs, three Liberal and three ALP.

Last night it was the turn of Craig Emerson, one of Labor’s most interesting thinkers, and his project of redefining social democracy as the cause of individual freedom and self-reliance.

You can read a full report on his talk at Catallaxy, but what’s captured media attention is his plan to make school attendance compulsory to year 12. John Howard yesterday attacked the idea as a “one-size-fits-all approach”.

It was perhaps just bad timing that the prime minister’s comment was reported on the same day as his education minister called for a federal takeover to impose a single national school curriculum — surely a “one-size-fits-all approach” if ever there was one.

Nonetheless, on the question of compulsory school attendance I think that Howard is right and Emerson is wrong. There is a basic tension in Emerson’s proposal between flexibility and control.

On the one hand, he wants to deregulate the school system, making schools more responsive to demand by abolishing zoning and tied funding. On the other hand, he argues for delivering schools a big new captive market in the form of unwilling 16 and 17-year-olds. What industry is going to work to satisfy its customers’ needs if the customers are forced by law to patronise it?

Emerson acknowledged the tension when I put this to him last night, but said that the benefits of high-school completion were too great to pass up — that it was becoming “the new baseline” for employment qualification. But rising school leaving ages do not seem to have been correlated with higher educational achievement.

If people left school earlier, schools might make more of an effort to teach them something useful before then; as it is, students who want to learn are hampered by those who don’t, and schools look more and more like custodial institutions and less like educational ones.

Education and schooling are not the same thing: the law can force young people to sit in classrooms all day, but it can’t make them learn. And the presumption against forcing people to do things “for their own good” should be very strong, otherwise there is almost no limit to what might be justified.

Peter Fray

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