19.05.1991

Pity the little children who do not labour

Pity the little children who do not labour
 
Lynette Burrows argues that girls and boys should go out to work
 
A REPORT published last week by the Low Pay Unit, an independent research organi­sation, entitled The Hidden Army, revealed that 43 per cent of children aged between 10 and 16 had paid jobs.
 
Far from rejoicing at this welcome sign of energy and enterprise, the report's authors react like distressed gentlefolk who have just dis­covered the unpleasant facts of life and inveigh against the very idea of children wanting to work and earn money, describing it as a "scandal" and a sign of "wilful neglect" on the part of government.
 
Using the tendentious vocabulary beloved of those who want to load a case, they scrupulously refer to 14- and 15-year-olds as "children" despite the fact that, in another context — giving them advice about contracep­tives and abortion, for exam­ple — one is in no doubt that the same people would call them "young adults" and assume that they are per­fectly capable of making important decisions about their lives for themselves.
 
If one feels that, in princi­ple, there is nothing whatever wrong with young people get­ting into the job market early, one would be reassured to find in the report that among the "worst cases" the authors discovered were a boy of 15 who did 12 hours of house­work a week for £25 and a girl of 14 who did odd jobs for 16 hours a week — probably working at weekends — and still had the energy to take part in a song-and-dance act organised by her parents.
 
These being the worst cases, we may assume that there does not exist a problem worth worrying about except for the fact that all this work­ing during and after school hours is unfortunately, and ridiculously, illegal.
 
However, one can certainly see that, from the point of view of the teaching profes­sion, the report highlights a two-fold problem. First, the number of schoolchildren has declined as the birthrate has dropped, so there is a certain urgency about the desire to force those who remain to stay on for as long as possible.
 
Secondly, it is increasingly obvious that many schools are an unacceptably unpleas­ant environment.
 
Proof of this may be found in the teaching profession itself, where there are now more teachers who have left the profession than have remained in it; and they were paid to be there! The children, on the other hand, are expected to put up with all the things that teachers have fled; bullying, chaos, verbal abuse and low educational standards, without the com­pensation of upwards of £12,000 a year and three months' paid holiday. How can anyone, in all fairness, blame those children who decide that enough is enough and leave by the same door as their mentors?
 
The scandal, if there is any, is that it should be illegal for children to work, and for any­one to employ them, part- time below the age of 14 and full-time below the age of 16. Indeed, one cannot think of a formula more calculated to produce adverse effects than this.
 
The reality of our present situation is that in many schools levels of truancy have reached epidemic proportions and, if the truth were admit­ted, many teachers are relieved when the worst and most disruptive of their pupils take themselves off, leaving the others to get on with their work in peace.
 
Apart from truancy, it was recently reported on BBC2's Private Eye that more chil­dren than ever are being barred from schools because of bad behaviour, and that schools now have no way of containing the problem. It would be helpful if the teach­ing profession acknowledged this if only to ensure that those children who were uncontainable could at least go out and legally find a job that would soon impose upon them the motivation and dis­cipline that schools lack.
 
As it is, those troublesome young people — who are likely to be the roughest and toughest anyway — are pre­vented from finding honest work and are forced instead to crime, idleness, or illegal employment, where they are likely to be exploited. Indeed, this is the one rele­vant, unsurprising fact in the report, but without it indicat­ing to the authors the obvious solution: decriminalise the employment of children and cover them by the laws that protect everyone else.
 
Here is an area of social affairs where we could per­haps learn from our Continen­tal neighbours. In France, Ita­ly and Spain — countries where they traditionally love children and actually wel­come having them around — they have a school leaving age of 14. In those three countries one will find hordes of sen­sible, serious young people working all over the place at an age regarded by this report as being below that of normal competence. Their authori­ties seem to have accepted what ours haven't even noticed, that a large number of youngsters learn much bet­ter and more willingly by doing and not by theory.
 
The irony is that we like to claim that young people today grow up faster than ever, while insisting that they remain in school for longer than is useful to them. School simply does not suit all chil­dren after a certain age and no amount of tinkering with the curriculum will alter that. Some young people are big enough and sensible enough to have outgrown what schools can teach them, and they need the context of the real world before they can learn any more. There is no great shame in that; most of the great figures in our Euro­pean culture left school well before their 16th birthday. Young people who want to leave school to work after the age of 14 should be allowed to do so, and we should not allow the snobbery and elit­ism of professionals with an eye on their own job opportu­nities to stand in their way.