When the kids do the caring

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Teachers need to be aware of pupils who take care of a family member, reports Adi Bloom

Jasmine Daze was fed up with being known around school as Fran's sister.

The 15-year-old found it hard attending the same Norfolk secondary as Fran, who is 17 and has Down syndrome.

"At lunch break, if Fran was sitting on her own, people would come up and ask me if she was OK," she said. "And her teachers would come to me if Fran didn't have her lunch box, when they should have called our parents. I was just Fran's sister. I wasn't known for being me."

There are approximately 150,000 young people in Britain who, like Jasmine, face the additional responsibilities of caring for a sick or disabled family member. To highlight these children's problems, the Children's Society and the YMCA held a young carers' festival last weekend.

Peter Cooper, YMCA children's director, said the aim was to help teachers to recognise the unique challenges these pupils face.

"Because it is not included in their teacher-training material, a lot of teachers don't know about the existence of young carers," he said. "And because they're unaware, they often push the very buttons that make things worse."

For example, a teacher might give a boy detention for persistent lateness.

But he might have taken younger siblings to school each morning, and detention would prevent him from collecting them.

Pupils often fail to tell teachers about such situations, fearing that they will be taken into care.

Mr Cooper said teachers should be aware that they may have young carers in their classrooms. "If someone is always tired, or always late, teachers should ask whether there's an underlying reason," he said. "We want teachers to talk to these pupils as young carers. We need them to understand their lives differ from those of the majority of children."

The problems faced by young carers were also discussed in a one-day conference last week, held by the Children's Services Network. Martin Rogers, its co-ordinator, said: "Kids in this situation are in danger of dropping through the gap. Often they're bullied, simply because other kids at school don't understand their issues.

"Teachers need to realise the pressure and stress that a lot of young carers are under."

Jasmine hopes that these conferences will help teachers realise that pupils in her position need additional support, rather than added burdens.

"I felt like my responsibility was continuing at school," she said. "I didn't have a place for respite. Sometimes you just need a bit of me-time, a bit of peace. School would have been good for that."

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

Tips for teachers

* Remember that young carers are often bullied.

* Encourage pupils to respect differences in others.

* Offer resources and facilities that cater for carers, such as a dedicated member of staff or a chill-out room.

* Offer confidentiality if young carers want to talk

* Provide mentors who understand their needs.

* Offer easy access to telephones so that pupils can stay in touch with their family, or in emergencies.

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