Working children

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Two-thirds of all children get their first taste of paid work before they turn 16. Helping out in a local shop or delivering newspapers is a rite of passage. But can part-time work and full-time education sit happily together? The law says that children under school-leaving age shouldn't work more than 12 hours a week in term-time. Yet thousands do.

Hard times

The employment of children was first regulated under The Factory Health and Morals Act of 1802, which limited the working day of children in cotton and wool mills to 12 hours. It was largely ignored. Children were cheap labour, did as they were told and could fit into small spaces between machinery.

They would typically start work at the age of eight or nine and labour for around 14 hours a day. Regular inspections to enforce the 12-hour rule didn't start until 1860, and even after the introduction of compulsory education in 1880, many families still sent their children to work, rather than to school. In 1933, the Children and Young Persons Act laid down much stricter laws about working hours and the sort of work children could do.

Current UK law is based on this Act, amended to take account of EU directives.

Plus ca change...

Today, around one million UK children below school-leaving age are in employment at any one time. And of the 3.5 million children currently aged between 11 and 16, around 2.6 million will have their first paid job before they leave school. These figures are approximations, but there is a clear consensus that children who do no paid work before they turn 16 are firmly in the minority. Children's work isn't just paper rounds and babysitting.

While these are still popular jobs for under-14s, older children are widely employed in shops, hotels, offices, restaurants, factories and farming.

Young workers are particularly useful to the tourism and leisure industry, which needs to employ more people over the holiday periods, when schoolchildren are most likely to be looking for work. The kind of exploitation seen during the Industrial Revolution may have disappeared, but one thing hasn't changed: child labour is still cheap labour. A third of under-16s earn less than Pounds 2.50 an hour, while only one in 10 earns more than pound;5 an hour. Young workers over 16 are entitled to a minimum wage, which is currently pound;4.25 for 18 to 21s and pound;5.05 for over-22s. However, until the age of 18 there's a reduced rate, currently set at pound;3 an hour.

Pros and cons

Paid work gives young people independence, confidence and a sense of responsibility. It teaches them the value of hard-earned money and offers an early introduction to the world of work and a different social mix from the one they experience at school. And it can motivate students in one of two ways: by showing them what they can aspire to, or by giving them a glimpse of the sort of job they might end up in if they don't get good results.

But there may be downsides, too. Clearly, there's a difference between working during the holidays or on Saturday mornings, and putting in 20-hour weeks during term time, as many children do. A 2001 TUC survey, Class Struggles, found that 29 per cent of children with jobs said they were sometimes too tired to do homework, while 10 per cent admitted truanting in order to do their job, a figure which rose to 15 per cent in some parts of the country.


Children under 13 are not allowed to do paid work except babysitting, modelling or acting. Thirteen-year olds are allowed to do a limited range of jobs, as specified in local bylaws, which usually include paper rounds and sometimes shop or light agricultural work.

Children aged 14 or over, but below school-leaving age - defined as the last Friday in June of the school year in which they are 16 - can only be employed in "light work". There's a lengthy, somewhat dated, list of prohibited jobs, which includes working down mines, in slaughterhouses, or aboard merchant ships. Paid work should not take place during school hours, before 7am or after 7pm. Children are not allowed to work for more than two hours on a school day, eight hours on a Saturday, or two hours on a Sunday.

There is a weekly limit of 12 hours during term time, and a holiday limit of 35 hours for 15 and 16-year-olds, and 25 hours for 14-year-olds.

...and outlaws

Today's child employment laws are flouted every bit as openly as those of the 1800s and most children who work, do so illegally. Mostly, it's a question of paperwork. The law states that anyone employing a child below school-leaving age must apply to their local authority for a permit. But surveys suggest only around one in 10 employers bothers to do this. More seriously, many children work far longer hours than the law allows.

The TUC survey shows that almost a third of working schoolchildren do more than the permitted two hours a day during term time and one in 10 does more than five hours a day. In extreme cases children may be working close to full-time; a Surrey County Council investigation of a fast-food outlet found 15-year-olds working from 5pm until midnight (see case study). Other local authorities report cases of children getting up as early as 4am every day of the week to do milk or newspaper deliveries. "The law simply isn't adhered to," says Gwen Medd, child employment officer for Buckinghamshire.

"Some employers aren't aware of the restrictions, others actively choose to ignore them."

Does having a job lead to poor GCSE results?

Not necessarily. Part-time work and full-time education seem to be compatible - up to a point. Studies by Dr Jim McKechnie and Sandy Hobbs at Paisley University show that children who do a small amount of part-time work actually do better at school than those who don't work at all. But that only holds true for those who work fewer than five hours a week. After that, the more hours worked in paid employment, the poorer the level of attendance and attainment in school. But Dr McKechnie warns against jumping to the conclusion that part-time work is directly responsible for bad grades. "It's possible that some children take on part-time work because they have already grown disillusioned at school," he says. "The long hours may be a symptom of disengagement, not the cause of it."

What about over-16s?

There are fewer legal restrictions for 16 to 18-year-olds, even if they're in full-time education. Employment in bars and bookmakers is prohibited during opening hours, and jobs involving dangerous chemicals or extreme working conditions are also off-limits. The working week is restricted to 40 hours, and there should be two full rest days each week. Research suggests that older students are more likely to do part-time work than under-16s - and more likely to work long hours.

For example, a 2001 study carried out by the Paisley University team in Renfrewshire schools found that two-thirds of students in their final year did paid work, with a third of these doing more than 16 hours a week. Shop work accounted for more than half of all jobs, and typical earnings were between pound;40 and pound;60 a week. Those who worked fared worse in their Higher Still examinations than those who didn't work, and those who worked more than 16 hours a week fared worst of all.

Even at university, too much part-time work has a negative effect. A 2005 study by the London South Bank and Open Universities found that students working 15 hours a week cut their odds for a first-class degree or a 2.1 by more than a third.

Money to burn

Child labour has always been closely linked to poverty, and still is in the developing world. But in the UK only a minority work in order to pay the family bills. Indeed, studies suggest that schoolchildren from middle-class backgrounds are now more likely to do part-time jobs than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. "Middle-class families are better connected to the employment network," says Dr McKechnie. "They're well placed to help their children find the right sort of work."

It's not just the extra spending power that children value, it's the independence that comes with it. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls for young people with spare cash. Research published in 2005 at Glasgow University found that one in three 15-year-olds spends more than pound;450 a year on alcohol, while one in 10 spends more than pound;1,500 a year on a combination of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. To support this level of spending, most children would need some form of paid work. A study at Edinburgh University bears this out, revealing that young people with part-time income are more likely to be heavy drinkers than those who don't work.

Voicing your concerns

Local education authorities have the power to prevent children under school-leaving age from working if there is evidence that it is having an adverse effect on their education. In practice, this rarely happens because it is difficult to enforce. If a pupil seems to be suffering because of their work commitments, the first thing to establish is whether they're being pressured by their employer into doing more work than they would like.

Young people who are new to the workplace often feel powerless, and can be wary of turning down work for fear of losing their job. "Many adults find it difficult to complain to their boss," says Gwen Medd. "For a 15-year-old it can be almost impossible."

Making pupils aware of the child employment laws may help them to stand their ground if an employer is being unreasonable. If a pupil is working long hours out of choice, it's more awkward. It's useful to find out what their motivation is. They could be working because they want to escape an awkward situation at home, or they may feel under pressure to earn money.

Teenage boys, in particular, often feel a need to become "breadwinners" if one parent dies or leaves the family home. Making your concerns known to both pupil and parents may be all that's needed; if not, you should approach your local authority's child employment officer.

Education pays?

Unfortunately, when children get a taste for earning money it can make school seem less appealing. One of Dr McKechnie's studies shows that under-16s who work more than 10 hours a week are more likely to drop out of school as soon as they can. Only 66 per cent of them choose post-16 education, compared to 86 per cent of those working fewer than 10 hours a week.

Part of the problem is that paid work and education are still seen as separate worlds. Schools emphasise the importance of their official work experience programmes, yet fail to acknowledge the value of any real-life work that pupils do. But that may be changing. The Scottish Executive has funded a two-year research project at Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology to explore the possibility of linking pupils'

part-time jobs to the school curriculum and perhaps allowing paid work to be recognised with some form of qualification. The results are due out this summer.


* has details of child employment laws.

* - for a summary of the TUC's position on current legislation, and findings of the Class Struggles report, plus a summary of the Better Regulation Task Force's 2004 report on recommendations for improving the child employment laws. The BRTF has become the Better Regulation Commission, and its website is can be found at has direct links to these websites

Main text: Steven Hastings Photographs: Taxi Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: league tables

Did you know?

* Around one million UK children below school-leaving age work, most of them illegally

* Ten per cent of those with jobs - 15 per cent in some parts of the country - admit they've truanted to go to work

* A third of under-16s earn less than pound;2.50 an hour, while only one in 10 earns more than pound;5 an hour

* Children should not do paid work during school hours, before 7am or after 7pm. They are not allowed to work for more than two hours on a school day, eight hours on a Saturday, or two hours on a Sunday

* Under-13s cannot do paid work except babysitting, modelling or acting

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