A child's legal rights What the law says about children working

Children, employment and the law

There are laws to protect children and their employment rights for:

  • health and safety
  • what jobs children can do
  • when children can work
  • how many hours children can work.

An employer can be prosecuted for breaking these laws.

Local authorities are responsible for licensing and regulating the employment of children who are under the school leaving age.

You can find guidance for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on a range of topics such as pay, holiday and general rules through the Citizens Advice Bureau

Child employment law and under-18s who have left school

Teenage boy in park smilingIn England, the school leaving age is being raised from 16 to 18 years. At the moment, young people in England have to stay in education or training until the age of 17. From 2015, this will change to until the age of 18 years.

Right now 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. The exact leaving date depends on their date of birth.

The law in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is different and the school leaving age is 16 years.

Young people who are over the school leaving age but are under 18 have some restrictions to the type of work they can do. They can’t do work that:

  • a young person is not physically or mentally capable of doing
  • brings them into contact with chemical agents, toxic material or radiation
  • involves a health risk because of extreme cold, heat or vibration.

Local authorities are able to stop or restrict children who are at local authority-maintained schools from working. However, the local authority can only do this is they think the employment is going to have a negative effect on the child’s health or will restrict them from getting 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.

Young people who work with children

Child care establishments like nurseries, crèches, and out-of-school clubs are heavily regulated and there are strict guidelines about the ratios of staff to children.

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.

Work experience placements, work-related learning and apprenticeships

The Department for Education has published non-statutory advice to help schools, colleges and other training providers deliver work experience, including information on health and safety and accountability.

The Health and Safety Executive have published a handy guide with definitions and outlines of the legal requirements for employers who have young people doing work experience with them (PDF).

Young people can work as apprentices from the age of 16. However, 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.

Child performers

Children under school leaving age may need a performance licence if they are taking part in:

  • films, plays, concerts or other public performances that the audience pays to see, or that take place on licensed premises; and/or
  • any sporting events or modelling assignments where they are paid.

The person in charge of the event must contact the child’s local council to check if a performance licence is necessary and make the application.

Children who are taking part in performances must be supervised by their parent, school teacher, home tutor or a chaperone who has been approved by the child’s local council.

More information about performance licences and supervision for children.

Disclosure and barring checks

People who are supervising a child employee or children on work experience don’t usually need disclosure and barring checks, unless they’re taking part in “regulated activity” (this means having close and unsupervised contact with a child). If a child is identified as being particularly vulnerable, or if the work placement is long term, a disclosure and barring check might be necessary.

Children aged under 16 who are doing voluntary work experience do not need to have a disclosure and barring check. Over 16s will need to have a check if they are working unsupervised with other children or vulnerable adults.

If someone in the workplace has been barred from working with children, that person must not be allowed to have regular contact with child employees or any other young people. If an employer knowingly allows them to do so, they are breaking the law.
More information about vetting, disclosure and barring checks

Unemployment benefit
Children who are aged 16 or 17 and who have little or no income may be eligible to claim Income Support (IS) or jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).

More information is available from job centre plus in England, Scotland and Wales or the jobs and benefits office in Northern Ireland.

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