Carers Trust Swansea Bay has devised a board game to raise awareness of the plight of young carers. These are the UK’s 178,000 children and young people who according to the 2001 census look after a parent or other family member who is chronically sick, disabled or for other reasons needs the kind of help that would normally be provided by adults.
Young carers shop, cook, clean, provide nursing and personal care, get siblings off to school, give emotional support and much, much more. Their average age is 12, over half of them are younger than 14, and according to Barnado’s the number of young carers of primary school age is increasing, with some as young as five. Small wonder that many of them display levels of poise, modesty and maturity that would shame many adults.
The word ‘plight’ is used by the Carers Trust, and in obvious respects it is apposite. Given widespread and growing unease, chronicled and endorsed by the Cambridge Primary Review, about the extreme educational, commercial and social pressures to which young children today are subject, the situation of young carers is particularly acute. For if, as Berry Mayall put it in her evidence to CPR, children’s lives are increasingly ‘scholarised’, what price childhood for those who, in addition to schoolwork, homework and home work (note the distinction) have the added responsibility of providing daily care for others?
Organisations like Carers Trust, the Children’s Society and Barnado’s do a great deal to support young carers and their families, while initiatives like the Carers Trust board game and ‘buddying’ scheme, the Barnado’s counselling and drop-in sessions, and Young Carers in Focus help these children share and put in perspective what otherwise they would experience in vulnerable isolation: the unremitting round of predictable tasks and unpredictable crises; and the way their lives compare not just with those of fellow-carers but also those of children who receive care rather than give it.
Yet it’s also clear that all this can take its toll. According to Carers Trust, ‘Children who provide more than 50 hours of care a week are five times more likely than their peers to report poor physical or emotional health. Child and teenage carers are also more at risk of missing out on schooling, socialising and other life chances in order to provide round the clock care for a loved one.’
We would expect young carers to struggle to keep up at school, but the bullying suffered by many of them may not be so widely known and is therefore doubly reprehensible. Researchers at Nottingham University report that a quarter of young carers have been bullied at school as a direct consequence of the way their caring role marks them out as different, while nearly half of the child respondents to the Nottingham survey did not have a teacher to confide in about their situation.
These additional burdens on young carers are of a kind that schools can and should prevent.
There are three reasons why it is especially important to draw attention to young carers at this time. First, from 17th to 21st November it will be Anti-Bullying Week, and this year a number of charities, including Carers Trust, are combining to draw attention to the extent of bullying suffered by already vulnerable groups such as young carers.
Second, 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a declaration that commits signatories – including the UK – to do everything in their power to protect and promote children’s rights ‘to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and reach their full potential’ and ‘to rest and leisure, to play and recreational activities’. That includes young carers.
The third reason is that on 30 October a group of them, supported by Carers Trust and the Children’s Society, met ministers and health officials to urge them to do more to identify and support what the Royal College of General Practitioners called this ‘hidden healthcare army’. Let us, as their teachers, endorse and publicise their campaign.
Young carers are among the UK’s unsung heroes. Do we give them the care which they in their turn so richly deserve?
Read the Children’s Society Report Hidden from View: the experiences of young carers in England (2013).
Find out about the Young Carers in Focus programme to network, support and empower young carers.