Should children be expected to work?

Boy on allotment

The number of youngsters with part-time jobs has almost halved in the last five years. Might the youth of Britain benefit from a revival of child labour?

There's spinach bursting through between the flowers in the garden of Peggy Cole's retirement bungalow, and a neat row of flawless tomatoes trained up the fence. At 75, the country skills she learned as a child are still a major part of her life.

By the time she was 10, Mrs Cole had already taken on several jobs - milking, fruit picking, even taking rats' tails to the local sewage farm for a penny a time.

"We felt very grown up," she says. "I've learnt over the years how to survive, where some of them wouldn't know the first thing."

In the 1930s and 1940s, when Mrs Cole was growing up in Suffolk, it was not unusual for children to work outside school hours.

Yet a survey of local authorities by the BBC has revealed that recently the number of children licensed to do part-time jobs has dropped dramatically. A Freedom of Information request to every relevant authority in England and Wales - 175 councils - produced figures from 101 councils for the years from 2004-2009.

The figures showed that while 50,000 13-15 year-olds were licensed to work in those areas in 2004, by 2009 the number had fallen to 30,500 - a drop of almost 40%.

Find out more

  • What's wrong with child labour? is the title of this week's Analysis programme on BBC Radio 4
  • It is broadcast at 2030 BST on Monday 20 September
  • Or listen again using the link below

By law, children doing jobs such as paper rounds or working in shops between the ages of 13 and 15 should have a licence issued by the local council - though not all do.

Official statistics from the Labour Force Survey, showing the proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds who had part-time jobs while still at school or college full-time, showed a similar trend. While around four out of 10 of these teenagers had jobs during the late 1990s, in the first quarter of this year the figure stood at a little more than two out of 10.

So, what's going on? Terry Drury, chairman of the National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment, says a range of factors is probably responsible for the decline.

In some areas adult migrant workers are competing for the work, he says, and there is also the issue of school hours.

"In the last few years schools have altered their starting times. Now clearly that must restrict youngsters from doing a paper round. When we go and knock on employers' doors, the report comes back that they can employ an adult for just the same price as someone at school," he said.

'School often unsuitable'

But the Children's Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, says she does not think children should normally go out to work before the age of 16.

"I would be far more sanguine about continued decline in 13 to 15 year-olds working than maybe the older ones," she said. "Their brain is still going through furious pace of development. Putting them through extra hours of work when their schooling is as demanding as it is - for some youngsters, it would be the last straw."

Boy in suit A suit is not usually required

But some experts argued there had been a more fundamental shift in attitudes towards childhood.

Although there is evidence that many children want to work, some academics believe the increased pressure of school work holds many of them back. But research at University College London suggests that a part-time job does not have any significant effect on a child's exam results.

The drive for "education, education, education" has gone too far, according to Berry Mayall, professor of childhood studies at the Institute of Education.

"Quite frankly, school doesn't really suit everybody," she says. "Paid work brings in some money of your own. It gives you a taste of a world outside school. And it gives you a sense that you are able to do something other than school work."

Other academics believe the decline in children's work has deeper roots. They argue there may have been a fundamental change in the way children grow up. Jane Humphries, professor of economic history at the University of Oxford, says children had lost a sense of control over their own lives.

"Children today are priceless possessions whose wants and needs are attended to. Because they can obtain pocket money from parents, they can by and large enjoy drifting around in society. You have to actually exercise some responsibility and initiative in order to get a job."

At home in Suffolk, Peggy Cole looks back on her childhood with few regrets. She feels that even though her childhood was hard - she had to work to support her family because her father was ill - in many ways she had more freedom than today's children.

"I've got five grandchildren. The two eldest have been to university and one of the girls is now a solicitor. I'm very proud of what they can do. But they could never skin a rabbit and a lot of people wouldn't know how to make a cake, even. If I go tomorrow, I've had a wonderful life, and they can't take that away."

Send us your comments using the form below

I'm 19, and starting the second year of my degree, and have never had a job in my life. The same goes for many of my friends from school, as often, unless a family member works at wherever you're applying for a job, you're unlikely to get work. Why would they take a teenager who can't work when they get trade during the days, when for the same price they can get an adult who'll do unpaid overtime and can work at any hour?

Amy, Manchester

I had my first paper-round at the age of 12 delivering the weekly free paper. By the time I was 13 I was working Sunday evenings washing up in a pub and continued to have part-time jobs in pubs and restaurants until I left school. My parents gave me very little pocket money so I quickly learnt that if I wanted money I had to work for it. When my own children reach 13, they will also be expected to work - if not in a job outside of the home, then at least doing work around the house or for my husbands business to earn any 'pocket-money'. It teaches children an important lesson about the value of work and money which is just as important to their education as academic study.

Lena, West Midlands

I am 18 now and have been working since I turned 13, within days of my 13th birthday I had made phone calls to try and find a job. It felt fantastic to have money that was mine by my own efforts, and I was able to learn the value of money, and good financial practices early on. I have had 5 jobs since I was 13, I have been able to develop a range of skills and I do not regret entering work at such an early age. The only issue I really had was education, since it was, at times, difficult to balance work hours with school and college work, but work also gave me perspective for my studies and provided interesting case studies to apply to what I learned.

Jennifer Warren, Winchester

No, children should not be expected to work. We're not living in the dark ages anymore and would we expect adults to get up at the crack of dawn, deliver newspapers then go to work? No, of course not. The notion that it teaches children values is nonsense. I was forced to get a job when I was at school and it only resulted in lower exam results because I was tired all the time. Ban children's labour is what I say. It's disgusting.

Neil Smith, York, UK

There should certainly be more jobs open to children, as it's currently hard to find anything at all if you're under 16 - I had a job from when I was 15, just by walking into the local pharmacy and asking. This then opened the door to lots of other jobs for me as I got older, and has meant I haven't been unemployed since! It gave me some really valuable experience and instilled a work ethic that hasn't dimmed. It's important that kids have this opportunity if they want it, rather than growing up believing that money is readily available and mummy and daddy will always be there to provide.

Azaria, Swindon

This article only talks about the children who are employed legally, i.e. with a licence from the local authority. But past research has consistently shown that most children who work do so illegally - with no licence. The drop in legal jobs does not necessarily mean a drop in actual jobs. Illegal working will include work outside the permitted hours and work that is not legally suitable for children and cases where no-one has bothered to apply for the license, or the local system is poorly resourced . Any "analysis" of the situation around children and work must also look at this issue, which undoubtedly affects far more children. The law is almost 80 years old and desperately needs reform as it is largely ignored in practice. Pseudo-regulation is worse than no regulation at all as it creates the impression that there is no problem, but only by ignoring what is actually going on.

Ben Whitney, Lichfield

I started working on a Saturday in a hairdressers at age 13. I got a better paid job in a shoe shop at 15 where I also got commission for sales made. This fired me with the desire to sell and make more than the minimum wage paid then. Within one month I was doubling my pay as I learned about stock and how to match a customer's requirements. At the end of this, I went to university and got a good 2:1. I also insisted that my sons, both of whom did very well at school and university, had part-time jobs. I think it teaches independence and the value and relationship between time and money. As an employer for many years I always gave preference to those who had worked while learning as they had much better skills and actually wanted to work.

Vivienne Clarke, Herne Bay, Kent

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