SCHOOLS should designate teachers as "welfare counsellors" for pupils who have to look after their families, the Scottish Office suggested this week.
A spokeswoman said it was important that schools provide assistance for young people who are trying to maintain their education as well as running a household. They should also establish links with social work agencies and raise awareness.
The move comes on the back of proposals for a UK strategy to help carers who have to look after elderly or disabled relatives.
There are an estimated 5,000 young carers in Scotland, according to the Carers National Association Scotland (CNAS). But the exact number is unknown and the Government is to include a question in the 2001 census to get a more accurate count.
Research published last year on young carers in the UK found their average age was 12. One in five is missing out on school, and secondary pupils face problems due to persistent lateness and lack of time to do homework.
The Scottish Office said pound;5 million would be available to social work departments next year to provide respite breaks and support for carers, although there was no indication of whether any of the money would go towards young carers.
The initiative, which will be given its final shape north of the border by the Scottish parliament, was given a guarded welcome. "The strategy means that carers are now firmly embedded in Government social policy, which is something we warmly welcome," Alan McGinley, the CNAS's Scottish manager, said.
But Mr McGinley said it was "deeply disappointing" that in Scotland, unlike England, cash for carer support is not new and will not be ring-fenced.
Staff working with young carers also welcomed recognition of their problems. Edinburgh Young Carers supports 70 young people from as young as four to the age of 24, most of them pupils. They find they have to look after not just disabled parents but often younger siblings where parents have a drug or alcohol problem.
Schools have been receptive to the problems, according to Roseanne Dempster, rights worker with the Edinburgh project. A third of referrals come from schools which shows a growing awareness.
Schools should be alert to persistent lateness and tiredness as early warnings that children are having trouble coping at home, Ms Dempster said. A more flexible school day would also help pupils maintain their education.
Aine Knapton, young carers co-ordinator in Falkirk who is responsible for 44 young people, paid tribute to the support provided by school guidance staff. She is invited to personal and social education classes to talk about her work.
"Some young people don't even realise they are young carers until you start talking about it," Ms Knapton said. "Many are simply born into their situation. It's important to realise that not all young people are unhappy with their position, but they do need support."
Schools could help by allowing some flexibility over homework, attendance and punctuality where pupils were going through a particularly difficult time at home. They could also take simple steps such as providing a telephone where pupils could contact their families in privacy.
Ms Knapton hoped all local authorities would draw up a young carers' policy and involve them in developing provision.