This factsheet briefly outlines the legal aspects relating to children and young people up to age 18 years in various types of employment in the UK, including apprenticeships, work-related learning and work experience placements.
Who regulates child employment?
How does child employment law apply to under-18s who have left school?
What laws or regulations apply to young people working with children?
How does the law apply to work-related learning and work experience placements?
At what age can a young person undertake an apprenticeship?
At what age can a young person babysit?
Child employment and child protection
Local authorities are responsible for licensing and regulating the employment of children who are under the school leaving age. There are laws to protect the employment rights of young workers which relate to health and safety, what jobs they can do, when they can work, and how many hours they can work. An employer can be prosecuted for breaking these laws.
The rules that cover the employment of children under the school leaving age are mainly found in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (England). Some rules are also contained in other acts and regulations, for example the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
In England, the school leaving age is being raised from 16 to 18 years. The Education and Skills Act 2008 changed the law so that young people in England are required to participate in education or training until the age of 17 years (from 2013) and until the age of 18 years (from 2015).
Currently, young people in England must stay in some form of education or training (including apprenticeships) until the end of the academic year when they turn 17, although the exact leaving date depends on a pupil's date of birth.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the school leaving age remains 16 years.
For young people who are over the school leaving age but under 18, there are restrictions on doing certain types of work:
The local authority has power to forbid the employment of a child under the school leaving age who is at a local authority-maintained school, or to impose restrictions on the child's employment. However, the authority can only use this power if they think that the child is being employed in a way that prejudices the child's health or makes the child unfit to obtain the full benefit of his or her education. This power does not apply where the child is a pupil at an independent school or an academy.
Child care establishments such as nurseries, crèches, and out-of-school clubs are heavily regulated. There are strict guidelines about the ratios of staff to children. More information on ratios is available on our factsheet, Recommended adult to child ratios when supervising children.
In England the Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage 2012 (PDF) (DfE, 2012) sets out the legal guidelines for various childcare settings. The guidance for each childcare setting (except for childminding) states that:
Only those aged 17 or over may be included in ratios (and staff under 17 should be supervised at all times). Students on long term placements and volunteers (aged 17 or over) may be included if the provider is satisfied that they are competent and responsible." (p.18)
In Wales, the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010 sets out the regulations with regard to children's day care for under-8s. This stipulates that all trainees should work under close supervision at all times. Trainees can be taken into account in the normal staffing ratios.
In Northern Ireland, the Childminding and day care for children under age 12: minimum standards (PDF) (DHSSPS, 2012) sets out the requirements for childcare, and states that all those counted as staff must be aged 18 years or over.
In Scotland, the National care standards for early education and childcare up to the age of 16 (PDF) (Scottish Government, 2009) states that "only adults […] should count towards the ratios".
The guidance for child care establishments in both England and Wales agrees that students on short term placements who work with children under 8 years should not be taken into account in the normal staffing ratios.
The Department for Education published non-statutory advice to help schools, colleges and other training providers deliver work experience, including information on health and safety, and accountability (DfE, 2013).
The Health and Safety Executive have published Young people and work experience: a brief guide to health and safety for employers (PDF) (HSE, 2013) setting out definitions and outlining the legal requirements with regards to work experience.
Young people can work as apprentices from age 16 years, although there is also a Young Apprenticeship scheme for 14 to 16-year-olds. Apprentices are paid a salary for their work and also pay tax and national insurance.
Although there is no UK law saying how old a babysitter should be, the NSPCC recommends that babysitters should be at least 16.
Staff who are supervising child employees or children on work experience do not usually require disclosure and barring services checks unless those staff are taking part in "regulated activity" which means regularly supervising or being solely in charge of children. Exceptions apply, for example:
Criminal record checks are not necessary for:
Disclosure and barring service checks may not be requested for people under 16 years (for example, school children on work experience placements), except as part of fostering and adoption arrangements.
In England and Wales criminal record checks are carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) who also provide a barring service to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, disclosures are provided by AccessNI and in Scotland by Disclosure Scotland.
Further information on criminal record disclosure checks in the UK, including more on what constitutes "regulated activity", is available on our Criminal record disclosure checks factsheet.
Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010. London: The Stationery Office.
Children and Young Persons Act 1933: chapter 12. Norwich: The Stationery Office.
Education and Skills Act 2008. London: The Stationery Office.
Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Norwich: The Stationery Office.
Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage 2012 (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).
Department for Education (DfE) (2013). Post-16 work experience as a part of 16 to 19 study programmes: departmental advice for post-16 education and training providers. London: Department for Education (DfE).
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2012) Childminding and day care for children under age 12: minimum standards (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (2013) Young people and work experience: a brief guide to health and safety for employers (PDF). [London]: Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Scottish Government (2009) National care standards for early education and childcare up to the age of 16 (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.
Criminal record disclosure checks
An NSPCC factsheet giving a brief introduction to criminal disclosure checks process for each of the UK nations.
Home alone: your guide to keeping your child safe
Our advice leaflet for parents on leaving their children home alone.
Recommended adult to child ratios when supervising children
An NSPCC factsheet on appropriate levels of supervision for children of different age groups and with different needs.