This article has been published in Enabling Education 8
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Title: Working Children and Education
Author: Lewis, I
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2004

Working Children and Education

“There is a profound interaction between education and child labour: just as work can keep children away from school, so poor quality education can cause children to drop out of school to start working at an early age.”


The issue of working children is complex and context specific. This article introduces some key issues and suggest a few important steps for improving the educational inclusion of working children. It highlights the key challenge of ensuring working children’s right to a useful education, while upholding their rights to survival and protection.

Children work for many different reasons. They may be poor and have to work to ensure the survival of themselves and their families. Other children may work because it is the cultural norm to start work at a young age, rather than spending childhood playing or at school. Work may be seen as an essential part of children’s development; transmitting vital skills from parents to the next generation. Some groups of children – eg, girls, children from ethnic minorities or disabled children – may be more likely to be pushed into (more harmful) work, because of society’s attitudes towards them. Factors within the education system – irrelevant curricula, inappropriate teaching methods, discrimination, abuse – can also lead to children leaving school and entering the labour market before they have completed their education.

“A 12-year-old girl…was enrolled in a public school, but was later withdrawn to work as a house-help to a wealthy couple…her father decided to withdraw her from school because he didn’t want to ‘waste’ his meagre resources on educating a female child who will eventually be given out in marriage.”

Danladi Mamman, teacher, Nigeria

Child work can be paid or unpaid, and take place inside and outside the home. Many children (especially girls) carry out domestic duties for their families or guardians. Others are involved in, for example, agricultural work, trading, factory work or sex work.

Working has profound effects on children’s education and on their lives as a whole. Working may offer help with financial difficulties and ensure basic survival, but can often involve long hours and lead to exploitation, abuse, ill health or injury.

Many working children do not continue with schooling, because they cannot afford to, or do not have the time or the energy to attend school. Their lack of education often limits their future employment and earning opportunities, meaning they cannot move out of poverty or provide sufficient education for their own children.

For other children, work does not mean a total end to schooling, but it can lead to irregular attendance, poor academic results and children repeating classes several times.

Working can deny children their rights to a meaningful, quality education, and deny them rights to protection from harmful forms of labour and other abuse.

“I was really good at my schoolwork and got on well with my teachers”

Melaku, child worker, Ethiopia

Melaku’s teachers and community workers said he was a bright pupil who was getting good grades in his exams. Melaku’s father died and his mother left him and his five siblings. Melaku took responsibility as the sole provider for his family, helping a local craftsman. He had to leave school to support his family. Life in his school for a working child had not been easy. Teachers had rarely understood the challenges he faced at home.

Memmenasha Haile-Giorgis

What can you do ?

All children have a right to a meaningful education, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This includes children who work. A long-term goal is to ensure that children do not have to work, but in the short term we need to acknowledge that many children will continue to work. How do we balance children’s need for earning income with their needs/rights to education; and how do we ensure that this education offers sufficient development opportunities that are relevant and beneficial to the child’s future in world of work?

Researching and addressing the factors that push children into work is very important. We need to understand the root causes of child work in a particular context, before we can find ways of tackling the problem. We also need to develop integrated strategies and partnerships, not just with those working in the education sector, but with those in other sectors concerned with poverty reduction, livelihoods, labour, etc, and those in government, NGOs and business.

The involvement of parents, pupils and communities is essential – for raising awareness and understanding of the issues; for developing and managing appropriate projects, locally-relevant curricular or acceptable teaching methodologies; and for helping us all share experiences and ideas on child work issues. Working with an entire community rather than with just a few selected children has also been shown to be less costly and more effective in reducing the numbers of children who work.

Girl Child Empowerment Nigeria (GCEN) works to raise awareness among parents/guardians about educational rights, especially for (working) girls. One innovative activity took place during national strike action held in response to increased fuel prices:

“…[the strike] has been an opportunity for me to meet [in the queues waiting for transport] many civil servants and parents… we have being sharing information on inclusive education, listening to the cassettes [of EENET’s newsletter] and many of them started having a clear change of attitude towards education. I have been able to convince some parents who have never sent their house helps to the school before and they have assured me that from September they would enrol them into school.”

Nene Azubuko, GCEN

Addressing factors within the education system which may make children give up school completely in favour of work can be tackled in various ways. For example, some situations may require the introduction of policies and practices that tackle discrimination or abuse in schools. Other contexts may prioritise a focus on improving teacher education and support so that teachers can manage the diverse and individual needs of all children (including those who work), and apply child-centred, active learning methodologies which may encourage children to stay in education. Ensuring that children are taught subjects and skills that will be relevant to their future working lives, and which also use skills/knowledge learned in the workplace, can also encourage children to stay in, or return to, education.

Children interviewed by GCEN believed a policy of free education in Nigeria would enable them to access education, instead of going to work.

“I am working here because my parents don’t have money to send me to school. Please tell the government to make education free so that we can go back to school.”

“My parents sent me to hawk here because we are poor. I cannot afford to be in school. I want our President to make education free. I want to start school like my friends.”

Developing innovative, flexible timetables and curricular can ensure that children are not excluded because of their work. These might be designed to accommodate daily or seasonal work commitments or might allow for flexible attendance spread over longer periods.

Alternative, non-formal education options need to be guided and regulated, so they link adequately with, and inform improvements in, the formal system. Certain non-formal education options like night schools and one-off residential courses need to be used with care, because of their potential to undermine children’s other rights (eg, they may fail to protect a child from harmful work during the day or from abuse in a residential setting).

Education and working children is a complex issue which cannot be fully discussed in a short article. There is no single solution to the question of how to stop children working or to the dilemma of how to provide education for children who continue to work. But if we are to achieve education for all, then working children must be part of all inclusive education initiatives.

This article was compiled by Ingrid Lewis (EENET), based on Save the Children UK’s document ‘Planning Working Children’s Education: A guide for education sector planners‘, and on short articles by Girl Child Empowerment Nigeria and Memmenasha Haile-Giorgis.

Contact GCEN at: or via EENET.