Stop exploiting schoolchildren as cheap labour

Francis Beckett performed a valuable service in spelling out the difference between state schools and private schools in funding per pupil ("More bang for the buck? Prove it!", 31 January). The economic facts are rarely acknowledged when state-sector teachers are accused of failing their pupils. I would like to point out some other economic facts which are also relevant.

I am referring to the introduction of the minimum wage. The full minimum wage applies only to those aged 21 and over. There is a lower rate for those between 18 and 21, and no minimum at all for those under 18. My concern is that employers are being encouraged to employ more and more schoolchildren as part-time staff. Many of them are working for less than £2 an hour. Working a few four-hour shifts through the week and a full day (or even two) at the weekends, such schoolchildren can clock up as much as 30 hours in a week.

I have been a teacher for 25 years, and one of the changes I have seen is the percentage of schoolchildren in such work. Formerly, a tiny percentage worked, mainly delivering newspapers, but now a clear majority work - in restaurants, service stations, chip shops, supermarkets and so on. The employers get cheap labour, the parents get help with teenage pocket money and the schoolchildren have cash for weekend activities. None of them is complaining - so what is the problem?

The problem is that pupils cannot put that amount of time and energy into part-time employment without their schoolwork suffering. For many pupils, paid work takes priority over unpaid schoolwork. They may have the intelligence to get reasonable grades despite the lost hours, but they are less well read and less educated than they could be. And the loss is cumulative, I believe, only revealing its full dimensions as the pupils mature. This loss will be suffered more by pupils from deprived backgrounds, given that children from affluent homes are less likely to engage in repetitive, badly paid work.

If the slogan "Education, Education, Education" means anything, it should mean an end to the exploitation of schoolchildren as cheap labour.

Les Reid
County Antrim, Belfast

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control