Why education matters: breaking cycles of child labour in the past and in the present

'Against Child Labou'r flyer from the International Labour Organisation.
‘Against Child Labour’ flyer from the International Labour Organisation.

June 12 was ‘World Against Child Labour Day’, where nations and individuals mark their protest against the 215 million children around the world who continue to do work that harms them or stops them from attending school.[1] One of the ways the problem of modern child labour is being tackled is through promoting the benefits of education, marked in 2015 by the slogan ‘No to Child Labour. Yes to Quality Education’. Yet, this is not a solution that is novel to the twenty-first century, nor is it one that is particularly straightforward. Education as a route out of poverty and as a way of gaining status and financial security is firmly rooted in the past. There has been a demand for quality education by poor parents since the early modern period and a number of responses to this problem. In the early eighteenth century a pro-forma for setting up charity schools was written which highlights the importance of education and the flourishing demand for charity schools during the period:

A Form of a Subscription for a Charity School, 1699-1718

‘And whereas many Poor People are desirous of having their Children Taught, but are not able to afford them a Christian and Useful Education; We whose Names are underwritten, do agree to pay Yearly, at Four equal Payments, the several and respective Sums of Money over against our Names respectively subscribed, for the setting up of a Charity-School in the Parish of in the City of or in the County of for Teaching [Poor Boys, or Poor Girls, or] Poor children to Read and Instructing them in the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion … and for Learning them such other Things as are suitable to their Condition and Capacity.’

The specifics for each charity school are helpfully left blank to ease the process of creating new schools for poorer children.

Of course, the same problems existed in the past as they do today. How do families accommodate the loss of earnings when their children are in school instead of working? How can poor families provide the necessary clothing, books and tools for the young school boy or school girl? These problems were just as real in the past as they are for countless families today who rely on everyone in the family contributing to often inadequate family incomes. But breaking this cycle and encouraging education has historically been one of the issues parents, local communities and religious leaders have confronted, even when attempts to provide education can only be described as sporadic, slow and definitely privileging the education of boys over girls. We’d do well to remember that it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that England would make primary school education free and compulsory.

At the same time, the provision of compulsory schooling should not romantically be seen as an investment in a work-free childhood. Not only did many children in the past and today combine work with school, but much schooling has been ideologically and practically designed to create a highly-skilled workforce. State investments in education continue to be justified on the grounds that employers require their workforces at a minimum to be literate and numerate, and often to have a broad range of knowledge. Updates in the curriculum are still justified in terms of business-need, as much as what benefits the welfare of the child.

Moreover, child labour has incorporated a wide range of experiences, especially when considered over time and place. Most modern audiences have little tolerance for children’s labour being used in factories or industrial work, where children are apart from families, face poor working conditions, and even poorer wages, and where children’s later life opportunities seem limited by such experiences. The social, physical and emotional toll this takes on children should not be underestimated. The ‘World Against Child Labour Day’ recognises the physical, psychosocial and moral dangers of child labour.

Historically however, much child labour happened in the home and within family structures. In such spaces, children might be taught to work the farm they would inherit or be apprenticed to a trade, such as millinery work for girls or shoe-making for boys, that provided children with the opportunities to run successful businesses, even become very wealthy, in later life. For such children, child labour was also a form of education that was often done by parents or parent-proxies. Apprenticeship contracts, for example, typically required that the employers whom children lived with not only provided a good education in their trade, but ensured the health and social wellbeing of their wards. Cruel masters were subject to discipline, both by the courts and the wider community.

The importance of education for such children was less about making good workers, or even enabling social mobility, than making good citizens. Education also provides children with the ability to read widely, to engage in political debate and to fully participate in the social and cultural life of their communities. Education provides access to a dimension of cultural life that reminds us that life is not only about work, but about the pleasures of creativity and cultural engagement. Perhaps most importantly, education ensures that people from all social backgrounds have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the public sphere. As we commemorate ‘World Against Child Labour Day’, and demand quality education for all children, we are reminded that what we want from education is not just good workers, or a more economically-productive society, but a society that provides the opportunity for children to explore their talents, that supports their abilities, that encourages equality for girls and boys, that teaches them to care about each other and wider society, that is politically engaged, and where everyone is able to participate in everything that it means to be human.

By Merridee Bailey and Katie Barclay

[1] International Labour Organisation Figures.

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