Should children be expected to work?
- 20 September 2010
- From the section Magazine
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%.
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."
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."