'We need to stop young adult carers feeling trapped and hopeless'

A fairer learning, skills and employment system is needed to support young adult carers, writes the head of learning for young people at the Learning and Work Institute

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Outcomes for young adult carers are shockingly poor. Official data suggests that there are 314,000 young adult carers in England and Wales – in reality this figure is likely to be much higher. Despite providing around £5.5 billion per year in unpaid care to family members, young adult carers are twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (Neet) as their peers, on average achieve nine lower GCSE grades and almost half experience mental health difficulties. Bullying, stigma, poverty and isolation often leave young adult carers feeling trapped and hopeless, with little optimism about their futures.

Young adult carers deserve better. At Learning and Work Institute we’ve established a programme of work that raises awareness of young adult carers’ needs and experiences and breaks down barriers to learning. We want all young adult carers to have opportunities to learn throughout their lives in order to realise their ambitions and talents. Education is a key route out of poverty; it enables people to break cycles of disadvantage, challenge discrimination and build positive futures. But for young adult carers this is often not the reality. These young people are being severely let down by a disjointed and inequitable learning, skills and employment system that typically pushes them away from learning and work, rather than enabling them to participate and achieve.

On an individual level, learning and skills providers can make a huge difference to young adult carers’ lives – opportunities to disclose caring responsibilities, an understanding tutor, flexible learning arrangements and financial support really make a difference between a young adult carer being able to stay at college and complete their course, or being forced to drop out. Some providers offer excellent support to young adult carers – Central College Nottingham and York College are two good examples. But unfortunately this provision isn’t consistent throughout the country. We need good, flexible support for young adult carers to become the norm, rather than the exception.

Road to progress

There’s a lot that needs to change at national policy level. Recent legislation has strengthened young adult carers’ rights in many ways – but there’s more to be done. Later this month, the Department of Health will be publishing a new carers strategy, presenting a real opportunity to ensure that government departments work together, rather than in silos, to actively enable young adult carers to aspire and achieve. Through convening the national policy forum for young adult carers, Learning and Work Institute has identified three simple policy changes that will improve young adult carers’ access to learning and work.

  1. Firstly, we want the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency to formally identify young adult carers as a "vulnerable group", which would give them full entitlement to the 16-19 bursary. Young adult carers currently miss out on this vital support that would help them with the additional financial costs of learning and, as a result, many either don't take up learning or drop out.
     
  2. Secondly, we want the Department for Work and Pensions to make young adult carers exempt from the 21-hour rule in the benefit system. Currently, they lose Carer's Allowance of £62.10 per week if they participate in learning for longer than this each week. Most further education courses require longer participation, leaving young adult carers in a catch-22 situation. Given that many young adult carers have already lost out on several years of education as a result of their caring responsibilities, and that they and their families typically live in or on the edges of poverty, they deserve greater flexibility to gain the skills they need for successful careers.
     
  3. Finally, we want young adult carers to be able to access flexible apprenticeships to boost their skills and careers. Currently Skills Funding Agency guidance states that apprenticeships should be at least 30 hours work per week, except in exceptional circumstances. Exceptional circumstances are not defined and no data is collected. As a result, many young adult carers are locked out of these opportunities to improve their skills, bridge the gap to employment and embark on sustainable careers.

Securing these policy changes will break down barriers to learning and employment and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of young adult carers and their families. Learning and Work Institute will continue to work closely with young adult carers, learning providers, support services and government to ensure that the new Carers Strategy gives young adult carers the opportunities they deserve.

Nicola Aylward is head of learning for young people at Learning and Work Institute. She tweets at @NicolaJAylward

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