Hidden heroes

6th July 2007 at 01:00
One in 10 schoolchildren are believed to be young carers, but many keep their home lives secret. Jan Trebilcock investigates

Katie's mornings are hectic. Some days it's not easy to get her mum up, in and out of the bath and dressed. If her mum falls over, it's a struggle to help her up. Then there is breakfast to be made. And they have to allow plenty of time to get to school because her mother walks slowly with the help of a frame.

Katie is eight and has been caring for her mum, who was born with spina bifida, since she was three. She shops and cooks and is especially proud of her spaghetti bolognese. She also acts as her mum's memory. "I remind her about her hospital appointments." Katie likes school and is doing well, but she says: "I used to cry when I had to go to school because I worry about whether Mum's all right at home."

Many teachers are unaware of the sort of challenges faced by Katie and other young carers who might be in their classrooms. As a result, a child whose punctuality is poor, who is tired at school and produces homework late, who may have behavioural problems or is mature beyond their years, could mistakenly be labeled a "truant", "lazy" or "disruptive".

Officially, there are 175,000 children and young people who help care for family members who are sick, have a disability, a mental health problem, or problems with drug and alcohol abuse. But charities working with young carers believe the numbers are much higher.

Louise Morgan from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers says: "We believe one in 10 children has some kind of caring role. Many have a heavy load on top of their education 21 per cent are caring for 30 to 39 hours a week."

Jenny Frank from The Children's Society says: "Many young carers hide their role because they are afraid of intervention from social services. They may feel there is a stigma attached to caring. Others fear bullying. But they do want teachers to know about young carers. School is a burning issue for them they want schools to be aware and 'carer friendly'."

Katie's teacher at Herne Bay Junior School in Kent, Judith Bradshaw, knows about the girl's responsibilities at home and the school aims to support her.

"Sometimes she can be tired or upset so we make sure we give her some time before she slips in and joins the rest of the class," says Judith. "She often chats to me in private, sometimes just to offload. She has a lot on her shoulders and she does worry about her mum.

"In many ways she's a normal, bright, eight-year-old, inquisitive about life, running around the playing fields and having fun and she's doing well at school. She can appear strong and self-assured on the outside, but she's sensitive. We make sure she gets care and respect, like any other child with difficulties at home."

Sarah Jane Wood, 17, has been looking after her parents since she could walk. Her mother needs constant care. "My mum was born with cerebral palsy. I started off trying to push her wheelchair. I tried to help with anything I could ironing, washing up, cooking but I was too little to do much."

Sarah Jane's father has Crohn's disease, the digestive tract disorder, as well as heart and kidney problems. "I have to make sure my dad takes his pills and, if he's bad, I have to calm him down and call the doctor. Mum can get anxious, which means she's more likely to fall, so I need to keep smiling and calm so they don't panic," she says.

"Sometimes I get tired of it all and a bit sad or angry, but I'm a bright and bubbly person and I don't dwell on it. I have a lot of support from my boyfriend and my friends. I am my parents' lifeline, I keep them going. But they want me to have a normal life and not be burdened and they always say: 'Education first: then us'."

Maria de Lucia is head of history at Canterbury College, Kent, where Sarah Jane is studying for her AS-levels. She teaches two young carers and says: "Sarah Jane works hard and copes incredibly well. I would never have known she was a young carer if she hadn't talked to me about it."

Maria's other pupil is not managing so well. "She is also a very intelligent girl, but she is behind with her work. Her mum has mental health problems and twice she has had to leave class to go to her mum, who might harm herself.

"These young people have such a burden, and as a teacher I am at a loss as to how to support them. We can be flexible, but we need more information about how to help them."

Maria is not alone in her view. A survey of teachers for Barnardo's shows that more than half feel most schools have inadequate systems for identifying and supporting carers.

A DfES guidance published earlier this year recommends schools develop a policy on young carers and have a member of staff to look after their needs

How to spot a young carer

Often miss school for one or two days at a time.

Rush homework or fail to complete it on time.

Erratic performance, underachieving or not performing to their best.

Constantly tired, worried or distracted when at school.

Often described as quiet, withdrawn or mature for their age.

Bullied and find it easier to mix with adults than their peers.

Want to keep their mobile phone on or make calls during the day.

Difficulty attending extra-curricular activities.

Parents who want them to stay at home.

Mum and dad not at parents' evenings.

Support from teachers

Have a named staff member with responsibility for young carers to ensure they have the same access to education as their peers, and to be responsible for co-ordinating the support they need.

Speak to the young person in private and not in front of their peers, find out what their needs are and what the school can do to help.

Allow them time to talk about the issues and their worries at their own pace. Listen to the child's perspective and be sensitive to their needs.

Only tell staff who need to know, and with the young person's permission.

Be flexible. It may not be their fault if they are late.

Allow the young carer use of a phone.

Lunchtime drop-ins and homework clubs can help.

Promote tolerance of disability and mental illness and take a tough stance on bullying.

Parents with care needs may be worried about the family being split up, so approach them sensitively.

Find out where the nearest young carers project is.

More information

The Children's Society's new Information for teachers and school staff on supporting pupils who are young carers, can be downloaded from www.childrenssociety.org.uk youngcarers or contact the Include project for young carers on 01962 711 511.

The Children's Society Young Carers Initiative and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers are launching a three-year training programme for teachers and other professionals working with young carers. It aims to establish joint working protocols and best practice guidance so no young carer is left unsupported.

Visit www.youngcarers.net and www.youngcarer.com.

A learning curve

Marriotts School in Stevenage made a member of staff responsible for overseeing young carers after two pupils had reached crisis point. Eighteen months later, and the sports college has discovered that 40 of its 850 pupils are carers.

Patrick Marshall, the headteacher, says crises in the pupils' lives manifest themselves in many ways. "They may be progressing well and then all of a sudden they lose it it pops out in an enormous temper tantrum."

Patrick believes it is not up to schools to "meddle". "It's a private matter and questions have to be asked in the right way," he says. "They want to be normal like all their mates and they are but they have big responsibilities."

Weekly meetings are held at school so young carers can talk together. Homework support is offered as well as some respite, which has included a day out to Alton Towers, training in coping strategies and on health issues around stress and sleep. The contribution made by young carers is highlighted in PSHE lessons and assemblies.

Patrick describes child carers as hidden heroes. "We let them know that what they are doing is extraordinary. We aim to help them strengthen their ability to do the amazing things they do."

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