How many young carers are there in your school?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

Statistics suggest that there are far more young carers in our primary schools than we might imagine. A new law is aiming to help better identify and support our young carers. Suzanne O'Connell explains

There are an undisclosed number of pupils in our schools who are currently undertaking care responsibilities. These can range from doing basic household tasks to personal and physical care, possibly looking after younger siblings and other family members too.

According to a definition used by the Children's Society, "young carers are children and young people under 18-years-old who provide regular and on-going care to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misuses substances". The most recent census (2011) reported that there were 26,000 young carers in London alone.

Being a carer can place pressure on pupils that lead to unexplained absences, dips in behaviour and attainment and real difficulties participating fully in school life. It can have an emotional and social impact too, as children find themselves unable to participate with their friends in evening and weekend activities.

Family Action is a charitable organisation that has taken a lead role in raising awareness of how schools can support young carers. Their particular concern is the high level of need that can go undetected. Identification is key and a new law should, hopefully, make this more likely.

The new law

The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced new rights for young carers. From April 2015, young carers will be entitled to an assessment of their needs by the local authority. The needs assessment should evaluate how the needs of the person being cared for have an impact on the needs of the child. In order to help put this new requirement into place, the Young Carers' Draft Regulations: Government consultation was published.

The consultation put forward proposals for the manner and form of the needs assessment. For example, a needs assessment might include:

  • The amount, nature and type of care being provided.
  • The impact of the caring role on the young carer's wellbeing, welfare, education and development.
  • Any differences of opinion between the young carer and the person cared for about the nature of the care.
  • How the care can be provided without relying on the child taking on an excessive caring role.
  • Whether any of the caring tasks the young carer is performing are inappropriate for the young carer to perform.
  • Whether the child's caring role limits their educational opportunities, such as through absence.
  • Whether caring prevents the child from building relationships and friendships.
  • How caring affects the child's emotional wellbeing.

The views of education and health professionals are likely to inform the assessment's conclusions and a school can ask for a written copy of the completed assessment. It is planned that the final regulations on young carer assessments will be issued in March 2015.

What difference will it make?

Rachel Leah, project manager from Islington and Camden Young Carers Service, points out that the new law's effectiveness will depend upon how well the local authority responds to it. Children's and adult's services must work together to identify, assess and respond to need. She explained: "We have been working with Camden and Islington local authorities to develop pathways for teams/services to highlight the impact of the changes and what this will mean in relation to assessment, and services offered.

"The changes in law outlined in the Act mean that when a child is identified as a young carer, the needs of everyone in the family must be assessed, if requested. This will then trigger action from both children's and adults services who will consider why the child is caring, what needs to change, and what would help to prevent the child from undertaking an inappropriate caring role."

A necessary next step is to ensure that social work teams within Adults' Statutory Services are trained and able to assess the needs of the whole family including the young carer.

In County Durham there is a Young Carers' Charter which 35 schools have already signed up to: "We have some excellent practice to evidence what schools are already doing to support young carers," explained Glenys Newby, the education development coordinator. "The local authority has been working with The Bridge and adult carers' services to streamline services. This is in line with the Children and Families Act and the Care Act so that it is very clear where young carers go to for assessment."

What to look out for

An important part of improving support and provision for young carers is knowing who they are. Hopefully, the new law will mean that more information is made available to schools. In the meantime, schools should be on the look out for tell-tale signs, a list of which are included in the Primary School Care Pack produced by Family Action:

  • Regular/ increased lateness.
  • Absenteeism.
  • Concentration problems, anxiety, tiredness.
  • Underachievement and late or incomplete homework.
  • Few or no peer friendships.
  • Victim of bullying.
  • Behavioural problems.
  • Unable to attend extra-curricular activities.
  • Difficulties engaging parents.

It is important to remember that young carers may not want attention drawn to themselves. Where there are problems with homework or other issues they should be handled sensitively and not in a way that embarrasses them in front of their peers. In many cases they do not want to be treated differently, just understood better.

What can schools do?

Schools are in a good position to recognise children who are acting in a caring capacity and to help support them. Family Action asks that schools:

  • Have a named lead for young carers who is known to pupils and staff. The designated child protection person is ideally placed for this role.
  • Have a young carers' policy in place (a draft is included in the Primary School Care Pack).
  • Provide information and raise awareness. Family Action can support this via targeted pupil assembly sessions.
  • Ensure staff engage in briefings/trainings that include warning signs, the impact of caring, the support available, and how to discuss the issue.
  • Explore targeted support.
  • Have visible posters and leaflets within school.

In primary schools, Family Action can help provide initial targeted support for a group programme that covers areas such as worry, anger, making friendships and where to go if a child needs help. In subsequent years the school rolls out the programme annually for children they feel may be taking on caring responsibilities.

Good practice

After a little hesitation, Alison Lazenby, headteacher at Cleves Cross Primary School in County Durham, has signed the Young Carers' Charter.

She said: "When I was first approached to consider signing up, my initial thoughts were that we probably didn't need to. After all we know our children well, we know their families, we support them as well as we can already. However, if we were already carrying out the aspects of the Charter, could we help by publicising it and encouraging other schools to sign up to it too? And, of course, we never stop learning."

The Charter didn't lead to a huge amount of additional work for Ms Lazenby and her school. "It was mostly to do with raising awareness," she added. "Listening to pupils and parents and acting on their comments."

A member of staff volunteered to be the lead and liaised with Family Action. The Charter's aims were shared in a whole-school assembly and an action plan was developed by a focus group that included the lead teacher, the Family Action worker, and some children and parents who included a mixture of carers and non-carers.

"We didn't discover dozens of children in roles that we weren't aware of," Ms Lazenby continued, "but what we did do is manage to widen understanding among staff and other pupils and give these children the recognition to feel proud of their role, raise their self-esteem, and in a few cases making a significant difference to their lives."

As a result of these actions staff are much more aware of young carers' needs. If there are reasons why a homework deadline has not been met, then this is taken into account, for example.
"What's even more important to them is that 'they know that we know' and that in itself lifts a huge burden from their lives," Ms Lazenby added.

Another school to sign up was Victoria Lane Academy, which has established a Young Carers' Club. Head Jane Richardson explained: "Victoria Lane has a substantial number of children who are not carers themselves but who display genuine empathy with their peers who are carers and want to support them."

Currently the group is working to create a chill-out area in the school. "Our young carers have ID support cards," said Ms Richardson. "They can access a telephone to call home if they are worried or anxious about their family members or simply just want to talk to someone. Regular meetings with the Young Carers' Club are held to share ideas and ensure the pupil voice is heard loudly at our school."

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Family Action has produced a Primary School Care Pack. It includes, self-assessment, staff awareness training presentation, action checklist for staff, student assembly preparation, example of a Young Carers Policy and a primary poster. For this and for more on the charity's Young Carers Services, visit www.family-action.org.uk
  • Young Carers' Draft Regulations: Government consultation: www.gov.uk/government/consultations/young-carers-draft-regulations


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