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Case study: Rona Pickering, school nurse

At any one time we can have up to 20 young carers in school. We hold regular sessions for them to get together and talk, providing drinks, biscuits and crisps. Psychologically they need to know that other people are aware that they have responsibilities, things going on outside school, without judging them.

At Chamberlayne Park we look after the whole child, the emotional welfare as well as the physical health and education of each student. In our student centre, school nurses work alongside an educational welfare officer, behaviour modification teacher and a counsellor. We are there as advocates for the children and to offer a place of safety and confidentiality.

We are an inner-city school with 44 per cent of pupils on the special needs register and we serve a high-rise estate with a high proportion of single parents. Our head, Richard Hilary, has a real vision of the school's extended role in support of the local community.

I am very excited by the student centre because it means that pupils and families have just one port of call rather than having to go to lots of different people and tell their stories over and over again. We do home visits and act as a signpost for families, connecting them to the services they need, some of which they might not be aware of.

Often young carers are supporting a parent who is physically unable to get about or who is ill, but many have parents with mental health problems.

They find themselves having to do the cooking, shopping, washing or having to be around to cheer people up, to give emotional support. For lots of them, coming into school is the nice bit of the day, a place where they can get away from caring, but they are also anxious about leaving loved ones behind. They worry that if they tell others about what's going on at home, people will assume that they cannot manage, which is not how they see it.

But they do want people to listen if they turn up to school tired, or haven't done coursework.

Often they don't want to behave as grown-ups at school because they have to be grown up at home and this can often translate as poor behaviour. They don't want school staff to be earnest about their situation or to say "you poor thing" and be overly sympathetic. Sometimes they even want to laugh about it all, which might seem inappropriate. If teachers are worried about a child they can alert us or find out from us if there is a history they should know about. We do not break confidences, but we can tell them, for example, if there is a good reason why a child is not doing his or her homework. We have weekly meetings with heads of year to go through referrals, and they are in and out of the centre all the time.

One teacher, for example, was concerned about a girl who was constantly complaining of headaches. We were able to say that we didn't think it was just headaches, that she was anxious because she was a young carer and needed to talk. She was looking after younger children because her parents were unable to cope, and, on top of that, she was doing a paper round to bring extra money into the household. We were able to give her proper support when in another school she might have been sent away with a glass of water.

We also work alongside Southampton's young carers' project. This year we funded our own pupil carers to go with others from the city to attend the annual national young carers' festival at nearby Fairthorne Manor. It's a great day out for them, to be with many others in the same situation; to know they are not alone.

Rona Pickering is the school nurse at Chamberlayne Park secondary school in Southampton, a post she job-shares with Mandy Rowlett. She was talking to Elaine Williams

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