10.1 The fundamental right of children to be educated is reflected in article 28[1] of CROC. In particular it requires that primary education be compulsory and free to all and that different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, be available and accessible to every child.(1) These principles are reflected in Australian requirements for compulsory education for children between 6 and 15 years of age (16 years in Tasmania).[2]

10.2 Most Australian children spend a significant percentage of their time in the formal education system. Approximately 70% of Australian children attend government schools. Of the children enrolled in independent schools, the majority (66%) attend Catholic schools.[3]

10.3 The education system and legal processes intersect in a number of significant ways.[4] At school young people often have their first exposure to information about rights and responsibilities outside the family. Educating young people about the legal system can assist them to participate effectively in society and should have a positive effect on the relationship they have with legal bodies as adults.

For the majority of children, the school is the first and most important social institution with which young people have contact outside the family. At school, the child learns how to interact with others and the rules of social behaviour, and education plays a vital role in establishing for the individual a permanent, healthy membership of society. When a student fails in this process or is failed by it, the consequences for the individual and society are often damaging and expensive.[5]

10.4 In addition to providing education on rights and responsibilities, schools give families and appropriate professionals the opportunity to address learning, behavioural and social problems as soon as they appear so as to greatly reduce the risk of children coming into adverse contact with the legal system. While schools should not be the only site for early intervention they have a critical role because of the amount of time children spend there.[6]

10.5 Apart from whatever families may themselves inculcate, one of the more important ways that children first learn about the concept of formal legal processes is through their experiences of school discipline. The way school rules are set and enforced, particularly the processes associated with discipline and exclusion, may affect the way young people react to and interact with authorities and legal processes throughout their adult lives.

[1] This provision is complemented by art 13(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which provides that everyone has the right to education.

[2] Only NSW has incorporated the right to an education in legislation: Education Reform Act 1990 (NSW) s 4(1). All States and Territories allow parents to apply to teach their children at home.

[3] ABS unpublished data prepared for the Inquiry on 22 July 1997. See also paras 2.32-40. The proportion of young people attending government schools is higher than average among Indigenous families (89%), one parent families (81%) and families living outside metropolitan areas (80%): ABS Focus on Families: Education and Employment ABS Canberra 1994, 16.

[4] Attorney-General’s Dept DRP Submission 52 queried the relevance of recommendations on education to our terms of reference.

[5] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 31.

[6] This was emphasised in House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs Report on Aspects of Youth Homelessness AGPS Canberra 1995 ch 10.