Yawning chasms are opening up in the Government's finances. So this might seem an odd time to start committing pound;1 billion a year to policies of uncertain value and dubious popularity. This, however, is just what the Education and Skills Bill will do.
Its central proposal is, by now, well known: namely to compel 16- and 17- year-olds to undertake some formal education and training, or suffer a range of penalties.
It is easy to paint opponents as "against education", but this is a bad piece of legislation, ill-conceived, badly drafted and with little sign of serious consideration of how best to spend education money.
As so often happens in English politics, the policy arrived pretty much overnight, dreamed up by Alan Johnson (then Education Secretary) on a visit to Canada.
The motive is clear. Although post-16 participation rates have grown a great deal since the 1970s, they now seem fairly stuck. Almost all academic high-achievers stay on to do A-levels, which have high value in the labour market and are the main route into university. Other 16-year- olds typically stay on too but, in spite of apparently endless revamps of post-16 qualifications, many drop out before 18, concluding they are not gaining anything worthwhile.
You might think the answer is to improve the choices available to teenagers, so they decide staying on for longer is worthwhile. But the Government hates the fact we are well down the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tables for participation in education at 17.
It is also very worried about Neets (young people not in education, employment or training), who are disproportionately likely to have low qualifications and poor prospects. Compulsory education until 18 could, in one go, abolish Neets and move us up the tables.
Having decided on the measure, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is lauding its supposed economic value to the country and young people. But the qualifications they are likely to obtain will mostly have no economic value.
The main route of these forced learners will be on courses leading to level 2 (GCSE equivalent) NVQs. But government-funded researchers have tried again and again to find evidence that low-level NVQs have some market value, and repeatedly failed.
In today's job market, some qualifications are well worth having; others are not. But the best thing you can do for your future prospects is get a job. This is especially true for the less academic and poorly qualified, as the Department of Work and Pensions has shown through its research.
Most young people work for small firms that will be faced with serious penalties if they do not ensure young employees are in formal, off-the-job training, and make it easy for them to be so. Since small firms also find it hardest to cover absences, and are often struggling, many will, very rationally, just stop employing teenagers.
These teenagers will then be forced into full-time education they do not want, and registered for qualifications which, mostly, the labour market does not value. Moreover, unmotivated students do not learn.
Meanwhile, the hard core of Neets will probably remain untouched. This group is actually quite small, because many of those counted as Neet are so for only a short time. Those who remain often have multiple problems, and have been persistently truant pre-16, so who is betting that a new set of orders and penalties will have any effect? Indeed, Jim Knight, the schools minister, has more or less admitted that the policy will fail with exactly this group, reassuring MPs that young people in "difficult circumstances" will be treated "flexibly".
A final irony is that young people in the UK do not stay in education for fewer years than the OECD average. On the contrary, they start younger than in other countries and now face a later leaving age. The league tables may gratify ministers, but is that an appropriate basis for major legislation?
- Alison Wolf is author of `Diminished Returns: How Raising the Leaving Age to 18 Will Harm Young People and the Economy' (Policy Exchange, 2008). The Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.