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Why child labour beats school The working environment allows kids to interact with adults, adopt their social norms and learn skills

Credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post / Getty

Credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post / Getty

November 15, 2019   5 mins

We’ve just finished the process of applying to secondary schools for our eldest, which as every parent knows is quite a stressful and sad experience: there goes your dear child, leaving the warm embrace of the friendly local primary school and heading into the gladiatorial pit of the comprehensive, where God knows what horrors lurk.

But like the Yorkshiremen in Monty Python, I can in all honestly tell them how lucky they have it: when I was a child in the late 1980s, London secondary schools were a genuinely terrifying prospect. I remember two enormous lumps kicking the shit out of each other on my first day, and in my school — one of the best comps in inner London — a significant minority of the boys were just being warehoused by 14.

Beyond that age they learned very little; they believed there was no point in being there, but the educational consensus was that the more years everyone spent in school, the better for them and society.

So while you often hear people lament that children should be allowed to roam free, my actual radical proposal — the one people usually think is a joke — is that child labour should be reintroduced.

Sure, when you put it like that, it sounds a bit… regressive. Perhaps I also think women should be denied the franchise or that MPs should be elected by rotten boroughs? Maybe the return of serfdom?

But it only sounds radical because we associate child labour with past times of extreme poverty and poor working conditions. For my generation it’s Rik from The Young Ones castigating an elderly woman about the “good old days” when you had “four-year-old kiddies digging coal”. And those days were indeed awful. Dan Jackson’s brilliant recent book The Northumbrians recalled the heart-breaking tragedy of the 1862 Hartley Mining Disaster where the bodies of young boys were found with their tiny arms around their brothers.

Not even an ironic reactionary like me would lament the decline of infant mortality and workplace fatalities brought about by health and safety legislation. We obviously wouldn’t allow children to do dangerous work in factories today, and many of the most horrific roles once done by kids are obsolete anyway.

But many adolescents — children, I suppose — could enter the workforce far earlier than they currently do, and would benefit from it. Fourteen is a perfectly reasonable age to leave full-time education for someone not academically inclined, after which they could drop everything but Maths and English and attend school maybe two days a week. For the rest of the time they could learn a trade through an apprenticeship scheme, or even — if they wanted — go to an office.

Even younger children could benefit from occasional work. The Government recently announced that they had caved into big business pressure by allowing farms to hire more desperate migrants to undercut British workers (not quite their wording, admittedly).

This is because, without cheap labour, apparently the “crops will rot in the fields”.

Sure, British adults won’t pick fruit at the meagre wages offered, because they’ve been spoiled by such luxuries as housing and food — but British children could.

Fruit picking season ranges from June to September, ideal time for groups of schools to go away together for a week, along with teachers or parent volunteers. Kids could be paid a few quid for a couple of hours’ picking. My eldest would happily do it if her friends were there. They would enjoy doing something communal and useful; it could even be presented, dare I say it, as a patriotic act.

But for children a bit older, the working environment allows them to interact with adults, adopt adult social norms and learn skills when their brain is rapidly absorbing information. They could also earn money at a time in life they really want it.

I suspect that a lot of teenage crime in London exists because boys reach an age when they want disposable income but there’s no way for them to legally earn it. They’re also mentally and physically under-stimulated by schoolwork they know brings them little tangible benefit. (This is arguably more acute among boys because they’re generally more goal-driven, respond when stakes are high, and easily give up when they’re not). Instead, during those crucial developmental years, they often learn negative behaviour through frustration and drift, so that by the time they’re finally allowed to enter the labour force, they’re already unsuited to it.

At the moment, almost half a million people aged 16-24 are unemployed, but many might not be, if they’d been allowed to start work a bit earlier — with a lower minimum wage. Experience would make them more attractive to employers; it would also get them in the habit of work, so they’d be more likely to adjust to working quickly and stick to it.

Prolonged education also cuts adolescents off from wider society. One of the worst aspects of British society — and where it contrasts poorly with Catholic cultures like Italy or Ireland (still, just about) — is that we have a great deal of generational separation. Young people benefit from working and socialising among those older than them, not only because they’re a calming influence but because they can subtly instruct them on how to behave.

Working young helps insulate children from one of the biggest pitfalls of modern life: extended or even permanent adolescence, which happens when people learn responsibility too late. It also helps a person form a place in a society. Not having enough money is pretty much the worst thing in the world — and reducing poverty should be the central “social justice” aim of governments — but not having a role or purpose is almost as bad.

Teenage boys like to feel needed. This really hit me a few years back when during an unexpected snowfall — there hadn’t been snow in London for well over a decade — all the cars in our area were stuck, and the drivers, many of them mothers with children, stranded. It was obvious that the boys on their way home from the nearby secondary school loved all this — for once, wider society actually needed them.

Having a job, going to an office and earning money — and with it the opportunity to work, and earn, even more — gives teenagers a role. If they don’t turn up for work, the company suffers; if they don’t turn up to school, it doesn’t make the slightest difference except for the purpose of government statistics.

Children often have an instinctive sense of when adults are giving them BS and so while official orthodoxy is that school is good for everyone, loads of kids know this isn’t true — and indeed many economists and experts suggest that education has very little impact on GDP. Among others, Bryan Caplan, author of The Case Against Education and Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann in The Education Myth both argue that education is an overrated part of economic development.

Various studies show that extended education is not good for all, and that most of the benefits of both secondary and tertiary education are down to signalling — i.e. it’s worth having an education certificate simply because everyone else has one, rather than because it actually improves your life.

Likewise more years at school don’t have much impact on people’s life outcomes, and while education reduces crime it’s largely because it warehouses potential offenders for the time being. Evidence from China suggests that adding an extra year of schooling does little to improve anyone’s lives, while an extra year’s schooling in Turkey has precisely 0% impact on men’s income.

So why keep all kids in school, when instead they could be learning how to be useful, earning and saving, and developing at a crucial stage in their lives?

Whenever a teenager gets involved in something bad it’s often lamented that the kids grow up too soon these days, exposed to violence or sex at too early an age; but maybe we don’t allow some of them to grow up quickly enough. Set the kids free.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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Bruce Gudmundsson
Bruce Gudmundsson
3 years ago

Mr. West hits the nail on the head. Keeping young people out of the work force so that they might devote themselves entirely to formal schooling deprives them of opportunities to be useful to others, to learn from people in various stages of life, and the engage the world as it really is.

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
4 months ago

I agree with this. The children who find school boring are the most likely to be disruptive. Also probably more inclined to bullying and violence because they are so frustrated and secretly ashamed that they are ‘thick’ when they are not really stupid just not academically inclined. There are many different types of intelligence. Taking them out of school would improve overall behaviour at once and help the more academic children.
Putting them straight into the workforce is an excellent idea giving them something to do that gives them a tangible result – money of their own. Teenage boys especially need to feel they have agency over their lives and school can feel insultingly infantilising.
Only one problem – with so many younger teenagers entering the workforce at much lower pay rates adult workers and their unions might complain about cheap labour undercutting their own earnings. But there are plenty of jobs going begging that adults are reluctant to do which teenagers would probably be more than happy to take on and the much lower pay rates would make these jobs more economically viable.