- Many children work part time outside school hours.
- The law on part-time jobs is out of date and largely ignored but no-one seems interested in reforming it.
- It may be time for a new kind of relationship between school and work.
The government has recently reviewed the regulations that control children's participation in the entertainment industry. The law also covers film-making, theatre, advertising, modelling and professional sport as well as film and TV work. The rules are intended to provide meaningful protection for children and proper regard for their education, but still enable their talents to be expressed and rewarded in a safe and supervised environment.
No child under school-leaving age can be allowed time away from school to perform unless their local authority has issued the required license. They must be chaperoned if their parent is not present. Only absences permitted in this way can be authorised and any concerns about what children are doing which does not appear to be properly regulated must been seen as a safeguarding issue. Frequent absences may require the provision of a tutor by the relevant company/employer or parent.
These requirements mostly date from the 1960s; a time when there were only three TV channels and Simon Cowell was still in short trousers! However, when it comes to the rules about children and young people of school age who have other kinds of part-time job outside school hours, the performance regulations look positively recent. The current child employment law dates from the Children and Young Person's Act 1933. Some of the rules still in force go back to the Employment of Women and Children Act of 1920. None of this kind of work can legally be done in school time.
Children in the workplace
Many children in the UK do work, and nearly all of them either work illegally, whether they are outside the supposed restrictions of the regulations, or in work that doesn't fit such an archaic structure.
We know the kinds of work they do, and it isn't just paper rounds. Children still of compulsory school age work in hotels, com-mercial kitchens, cafés, shops, farms, fairgrounds, markets and a whole range of other places. The minimum age any child should work is 13, even if it is to help out in their parents' business, but a few local authorities have put the age up to 14. There have been isolated examples of children as young as 11 working in industrial settings and factories. We know that if they work for themselves, or do babysitting, there is no regulation at all. Activities involving businesses that operate on the internet may have a commercial element that the current rules cannot possible recognise.
Children under 16 sometimes have to be given fake National Insurance numbers because the company's payroll system requires it. We know that the rules about no more than two hours on a Sunday and not working after 19:00 on any day, even in a school holiday, are routinely broken. Many children want to work. Perhaps that's a good thing on the whole. But what rules would now be reasonable to protect them?
Most working children (outside paper rounds) do not have the required permit or license; nor is there often any evidence of a proper risk assessment being carried out by their employer, which is a legal requirement. Some local authorities issue virtually no licenses at all but their children still have jobs.
Should those who use a bike to deliver papers wear a helmet and reflective clothing? Yes. But how many do? And do we really want children out on the streets working in the dark before or after school?
As the law stands, the definition of 'children' includes anyone still in Year 11 right up to the end of June, even if they're already 16. Every one of them should be licensed or the employer is breaking the law and we have no way of checking if the child is safe.
Tackling the problem
The current system is clearly inadequate so what should we do about it?
The limited debate among professionals and interested parties in recent years has tended to produce opposing views. Either we should ban children working altogether – school is much more important and work is no place for a child – or we should liberalise the rules and recognise that today's teenagers live in a much more adult world already and work can be a part of that, as long as it's properly regulated.
I generally favour the second view with a new set of more permissive requirements that would actually be enforced, but I would also like to see the work that they do integrated much more closely with their education. If you can demonstrate the skills required to hold down a job, this should surely be recognised in your educational achievements. For some older children, more interested in developing practical skills than in acquiring knowledge, a workplace might even be a much better setting to learn than a school and it might improve their attendance.
Work experience is under threat as a part of the formal curriculum. However, as we've seen, many will still undertake some form of work outside school and their experience of work is potentially valuable.
Having said that, there are clearly workplaces that are not suitable for children and there is a risk of them being exploited be-cause they will work for less than the minimum wage (which doesn't apply to them), or they effectively have no choice but to work as part of their family's or community's expectations.
What we need is a 21st century system, not one that dates from the Factory Acts and within living memory of boys being sent up chimneys. It is incredible that we have left this area of children's lives alone for so long when we have seen endless regulation about everything else.
- Where does work fit into our contemporary view of childhood?
- What regulations would now be reasonable?
- Who should be responsible for making sure they are carried out and that children have the opportunity to grow and to learn new skills, but in safety?
- Should we regulate the employer or the individual child or just make parents accountable?
- What's the proper relationship between work and school?
- Guidance on the employment of children, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009: http://bit.ly/1rKymlZ
- DfE Research Report DFE-RR124, June 2011, The regulation of child employment and options for reform
About the author
Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years' experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.