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New estimates on child labour and education in England and Wales (1870-1914

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For a long time in Britain, children’s work and absence from school were likely bed-fellows, as emphasised by several historians of child labour and education. This paper attempts to determine the extent to which this was the case in the early period of compulsory schooling. It is based on an innovative approach, which consists in compiling, combining, and comparing two sets of data, namely employment and education statistics. By tracing annual changes in the number of children enrolled in public elementary schools (for each year of age in isolation), the maximum number of school-leavers under fourteen employed full-time is indirectly assessed. It is then compared, on census date, to the number of children officially returned as occupied, using both published and digitised figures. In addition, the extent of part-time work is estimated by collecting figures relating to absenteeism, partial exemptions, and out-of-school employment. This methodology also makes it possible to offer a revised chronology of the decline of child labour and to identify the short-term impact of education and labour laws on the average age at starting work. It is argued that, while State intervention in the child labour market was, in many ways, spasmodic, imperfect, and reluctant throughout, the education policies implemented in the late Victorian era were nonetheless instrumental in the elimination of child labour in England and Wales.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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