There are 314,000 young adult carers in England and Wales. This equates to more than one in 20 young people aged between 16 and 24. They often care for a parent or other relative with disabilities, long-term illness or mental health conditions. Being a regular care provider can help a young person to develop a wealth of valuable skills and qualities, many of which are highly desirable in the workplace, but it can also have a detrimental effect on the young carer’s health, wellbeing and their time in education.
At the age of 10, Emily Hicks became a carer for her mum Sue, who has bipolar disorder and epilepsy. She was registered as a young carer at York Carers Centre when she turned 12. It was difficult for her to concentrate at school, because her mum was regularly awake throughout the night, and she was constantly worried about her. Emily’s behaviour became increasingly disruptive and her school work suffered, but she explains that once the school knew she was a carer, she got more support.
“It was good to hear them say, ‘We know you’re going through a lot,’ rather than, ‘You’re just a naughty kid,’” she recalls.
“Nowadays, that information would hopefully be passed on, but they didn’t have that system then.”
‘I was nearly kicked out’
Hicks left school without any GCSEs and enrolled at York College on a level 1 childcare course. Though she thrived on work placement, the first year at college was difficult. She assumed that the information regarding her status as a carer had been shared between school and college, but it hadn’t.
“They were going to kick me out because of my behaviour and attendance. So for me to move on to level 2, I had to sign up to have counselling every week. That really helped,” says Emily. The second year went well and after gaining her level 3, she went back to college and completed an access course in social care and guidance. She got her degree from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2014 and now works as activities coordinator for York Carers Centre, having volunteered there since 2011. Last year she was presented with the Patron’s Award by the Princess Royal at the Festival of Learning Awards.
Now 27, Emily still cares for her mum and describes her as being “absolutely wonderful at the moment”. She raises awareness about carers as part of her job and suggests that schools and colleges don’t always prioritise carers’ needs, as the group doesn’t have a statutory right to support, unlike care leavers.
“Each person is saving the government a lot of money, so a better awareness and a bit more respect for carers would be a great thing,” she says. But what can colleges do to make life easier for these young people? It is vital to identify young people as carers in the transition from school to college. Some may be reluctant to disclose they have a care responsibility because of a perception that stigma is attached or a negative experience.
Young adult carers may not recognise the benefits of support on offer, or they may assume that information regarding their status has been shared by their school or by healthcare agencies. In order to avoid missed support requirements, Emily recommends that a clear question is included on the college application form: “Are you a young adult carer?”
Enhanced staff CPD on the nature and practicalities of being a young adult carer is essential in order to raise awareness of this hidden vulnerability. Better understanding of the carer’s role, and the impact of it, is not only beneficial to ensure there is appropriate support in place, but in the longer term it may also boost retention and achievement.
Another approach that can help is ensuring that the support procedure for young adult carers is handled efficiently, with an appointed person in place to coordinate. It can be traumatic for students to repeatedly have to explain personal circumstances to different tutors, so a member of staff with a knowledge of local specialist resources, as well as individual situations, is helpful. Emily suggests a “carers’ card” system, whereby if a student is upset or stressed they can discreetly show their card, then speak to the person who already knows their story.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons