Labor Learns

My friend Macgregor alerts me to Lindsay Tanner’s speech at the Sydney Institute last night. As always with Tanner’s stuff, it’s well worth a read.

So exactly who are we? Over recent years I’ve thought a lot about my own motivation. About why I’m Labor. I’ve come to understand my core values much more clearly. I’ve realised there’s a golden thread running through Labor’s identity which reflects my own outlook on life. It’s been there from the beginning, and it’s dominated our message in the modern era. It’s at the heart of Labor’s mission.

That golden thread is learning. To me, more than anything else, Labor stands for learning. …

Learning is much wider than education. It’s not just a skills issue, a productivity issue, an economic inputs issue. It’s a values issue. Learning increases opportunity, it enables participation, it opens hearts and minds. It’s at the centre of debates about childcare, preschools, schools, universities, TAFE, apprenticeships, labour market programs, neighbourhood houses, adult education, welfare, immigration and aged care. It helps deliver better social and health outcomes, like alleviating loneliness and delaying the onset of dementia. The Smith Family defines learning as “the foundation for helping disadvantaged children to break free from the spiral of poverty”. If there were no skills crisis, would Labor still be passionately committed to expanding our nation’s investment in learning? You bet we would! That passion defines the kind of society we want to create. It reflects our core values, not just our prescription for better economic outcomes. Learning is about discovery. It’s about building a better world.

The more time I spend looking at active labour market programs, the more convinced I am that good primary schools and high schools are the best social policy we’ve yet devised. Finish grade 12, and your odds of ending up jobless are far lower than for an early leaver.

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17 Responses to Labor Learns

  1. “the more convinced I am that good primary schools and high schools are the best social policy we’ve yet devised.”

    Yet isn’t this exactly where we are failing in social policy? I share some of Fred Argy’s pessimism on all this, that a combination of poor family environment, chronically bad schools and too few jobs for low-skill males block upward mobility that might have been possible at earlier times.

  2. Don’t you mean 13 years of schooling? Kindergarten plus year 1 to year 12? 😉

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Point taken, Damien! I’ve corrected the post.

    Andrew, as you well know, I’m a big advocate of raising the compulsory school leaving age. I think the PM could also help by dropping some of his “drop out if you feel like it”-type rhetoric.

  4. Michael Moriarty says:


    You know in WA the leaving age is being phased in so that completion of year 12 or a vocational equivalent is achieved or 18 years of age ?

    Click to access act_amendment_leaving_age.pdf


  5. Mug Punter says:

    Read Heckman about the effectiveness of early childhood education over ‘later in life’ social program intervention

  6. I’ve never finished year 12. My observation is that if you are born into the right family with the right $ an education is not necessary. I wasn’t born into the right mob. I have also learnt that if you aren’t very intelligent it pays to get an education – because most people can’t tell the difference.

  7. Christine says:

    Rather cynical there FXH, but sounds like you’ve earned it.

    Re increase compulsory schooling age: where does it end? I ask this really seriously, because you can’t really argue that raising the school leaving age to 18 is going to have benefits, since (a) basically hasn’t been done before (NB in Canada has introduced it, but enforcement is apparently somewhat lacking, and I think there’s an exemption if you’ve got a job); and (b) one thing we must be sure of is that the average returns to an extra year of education drop off at some point.

    Re the PM: last time I was around Oz a taxi driver (truly not mythical) complained that he was anti-intellectual and anti-education and going to ruin the country because of it. From where I sit (sadly, not very close), there are any number of indications he doesn’t give a damn about education.

    BTW, has anyone done serious work on the political economy issues involved in centralising responsibility for education vs allowing for some competition between states in Australia?

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    Mike, almost Australian states and territories now publicly say that they are slowly moving towards raising the school leaving age, though some proposals are pretty modest (eg. raise it from 15 to 16, and accept having a job as equivalent to being in school). I’d go for 17, on the basis that 12 years of schooling will be the prerequisite for participating in the labour markets of the future. As to FXH and Christine’s concerns about differential or declining returns, I don’t find any evidence of a decline between grades 10 and 12 (if anything, the gain from 11 to 12 is biggest), and quantile regressions don’t suggest differential impacts across the distribution.

    MP, I’m dimly aware of Heckman’s work, and I agree we should spend more money on at least trialling early intervention. We still don’t know much in Australia about what works, and the present Aussie efforts are sadly scattergun.

  9. Ben says:

    Lindsay Tanner’s comments are intersting and clearly Labor has seen itself as ahead on education throughout most of its history. I support further efforts in raising the educational standards for Australians.

    There is something we need to remember in all of this though. If Australia is to be seen as a “meritocracy” ( a term that some apply to the United States for example) a sense of blame can tend to develop for those at the bottom of the pile. A sense that they haven’t achieved because of lack of effort, lack of education, laziness etc. Those achieving vast monetary wealth can see themselves as deserving because of their educational efforts, hard work etc.

    These views may not reveal the truth that economic liberalism by its nature creates extremes of inequality and increasingly unequal access to quality education. The key point is that there will be big winners and there will be big losers – no matter how hard we all try. Nor does it address the effects of inherited wealth which make the claims of deserved success by the wealthy ring hollow.

    Although the US is the land of opportunity where a child born to poverty can become Donald Trump (or George Bush!) it is more likely that a camel will pass through he eye of a needle. Economic liberalism needs an underclass – and educating the masses will only partially relieve this situation. If we live and die by education and broader social welfare is not maintained and nourished we only serve to increase pressure on students and perhaps rob them of the blissful “wonder years” many of us enjoyed. Rose glasses? Perhaps.

  10. Matt Cowgill says:

    In WA the legislation has passed, and the compulsory leaving age will be raised as of 2008.

  11. Michael Moriarty says:

    Thanks Matt I forgot to mention that the legislation had been passed. The act as posted above has been gavetted so it is now absolute in WA.


  12. Leo says:

    The obsession with education on the political centre-left these days is just a bit sad in my opinion. The big winners from more dollars for education always have been and always will be the middle class – always assuming of course that the funding is directed in a useful enough way to benefit anyone.

    The sad truth is that most Year 10 dropouts are not going to pass Year 12 whether they stay in school or not; depriving them of 2 years in the job market may actually lower their lifetime incomes, not to mention taking money reducing the income of (typically) low income households. Getting into the workforce at 16/17 is easier than at 18, and once you’re in it is easier to stay in.

    These pathetic state Labor governments will doubtless embrace the idea.

  13. Mug Punter says:

    Maybe we’re going to be the dumb-ar#e end of the world

  14. Michael Moriarty says:


    It seems the Liberals have a similar obsession try googling the following. Both are Federal Liberal Party policies.

    Skilling Australia’s Workforce
    Shaping our Future

  15. My snark up above was caused by a bloody heavy cold and being doped up on codeine – that my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    I’d agree with you andrew – we should focus on at least finishing year 12 and I’d make it a bit more rounded journey on the way with a broader set of, yes, mainly traditional skills.

    Due to my recent trip it’s on my mind but I think the rise of the Celtic Tiger (ireland) could well be explained by the wresting of the primary and secondary system away from the clergy in the late 60’s when bugger all kids finished year 12 and all they learnt was The Rosary. At the same time ireland poured money into the schools and began to cease protectionism.

    Funnily enough I’m about to do a bit of work in the new Australian Technical Colleges School-based Apprenticeships thingo – so I’ll be able to have a closer squiz at it in the next week or so. There seems to be a bit of money sloshing around for it. Has Andrew Norton said anything about it?

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