Kate Cubbage reflects on how the education system can do better at supporting young carers to be happy and successful at school
This week is carers week. It falls at a time where many young people are celebrating the end of exams and looking forward to new challenges in the autumn. For young carers in education, exam season can be particularly stressful as they juggle their caring role and academic pressures. This provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how the education system can do a little better at supporting our young carers to be happy and successful at school.
Who are young carers?
A young carer is any person under 18 who provides care for another person – this could be an 8-year-old boy helping a terminally ill parent to manage their medication or a 14-year-old girl making sure her parents with drug and alcohol problems are safe.
For Jamie, aged 9, who’s mum has MS and his dad has depression, each day is different, but they all present challenges that most of his classmates will not be experiencing. For example: Jamie makes breakfast for his parents and 5-year-old sister, he is responsible for taking his sister to school and picking her up, he buys and cooks dinner daily, he does the family’s washing, gives medication to his parents and at the end of every day helps his mum to go to bed.
Jamie’s story is not that unusual. The 2011 Census identified over 11,500 young carers in Wales, although this is widely believed to be the tip of the iceberg. Wales has the highest proportion of carers under the age of 18 in the UK.
Often, these children are caring for relatives without their teachers’ knowledge, even though their caring role creates demands that impact on their capacity to enjoy and achieve at school.
What are the potential impacts of caring on pupil attainment, achievement and well-being?
Young carers are a vulnerable and disadvantaged group specifically mentioned in Estyn’s School Inspection Guidance.
Research shows that:
- 27% of young carers (aged 11–15) miss school or experience educational difficulties (40% where children care for a relative with drug or alcohol problems)
- Young carers have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level
- Young carers are more likely than the national average not to be in education, employment or training (NEET) between 16 and 19
- A quarter of young carers say they are bullied at school because of their caring role
What can be done to better support young carers at school in Wales?
There are many ways in which young carers can be well-supported both to achieve academically and to lead happier more fulfilling lives.
The Young Carers in Schools Wales programme is one way in which schools are being supported to help their learners who are young carers. This programme is based on a successful awards scheme developed in partnership with The Children’s Society and Carers Trust for schools in England. This has been produced in association with teachers, schools staff, carers services and is grounded in real experiences. Already this programme is delivering change for young carers in Wales.
The programme, led by Carers Trust Wales, has resulted in the development of a Wales edition of a Step-by-step Guide for Leaders, Teachers and Non-teaching Staff which includes a 10-step tool to help school staff identify young carers and to support them in creative and ambitious ways.
Throughout the piloting of the toolkit, which involved 8 schools from across Wales, it was clear that many schools are already delivering exceptional practice, making a positive difference to the young carers they support. Other schools are keen to achieve these excellent outcomes, and welcome tools to enable them to do so effectively.
What has the impact been so far?
The outcomes from implementing the Young Carers in Schools Award scheme in England have shown some impressive results not least in increasing young carers confidence, wellbeing, achievement and attainment. The pilot schools in Wales have already reported a significant increase in the number of young carers identified since being the programme but there is still more to be done.
The passionate and dynamic leaders within the pilot schools will undoubtedly drive this programme forward, sharing the best practice they’ve developed with their feeder schools and within their clusters. However, emerging practice needs to move beyond the pilot schools and their neighbouring areas. It is essential that all schools in Wales are supported and encouraged to look at what they deliver for young carers and how they can improve their offering. We believe that the toolkit and associated resources provides a tested and reliable framework for undertaking this task and that priority should be given to enacting it.
Most simply, it is important that everyone involved in education takes the time to think about the needs of young carers. A basic awareness of the immense challenges young carers face can help to break down barriers and to ensure that the system develops in a way that supports and empowers them, rather than gives them another hurdle to climb.