Making school count for young carers

Written by: HTU | Published:

Michelle Dale discusses the importance of supporting young carers and explains how her primary school is making a difference for those pupils who have caring responsibilities

I have been working at Harpur Mount Primary School now for 11 years, and have been safeguarding and equality champion for the past two years. This role includes leading on child protection.

Harpurhey in north Manchester is quite a deprived area; around 60 per cent of pupils in our school qualify for free school meals. Harpur Mount caters for children from the ages of three to 11, and, despite the many challenges the area faces, the children who attend our school are an absolute joy to teach.

As part of my role, I work with colleagues to ensure that all our pupils get the best start in life and are able to enjoy and thrive in school. However, some groups of vulnerable pupils need extra support to be able to do this. Young carers are one such group.

A young carer is a young person between the age of five and 18 who cares for a parent or sibling with a physical or mental health difficulty or a parent who has problems with substance misuse.

Research shows that 13 per cent of five to 10-year-olds could be missing school or experiencing educational difficulties because of caring roles. Young carers often carry out a range of household tasks such as shopping, washing, paying bills, reading letters for parents, cooking, cleaning and laundry, as well as nursing tasks such as administering medication or providing personal care such as washing or dressing.

Many also provide emotional support and reassurance to the person they care for. We have been working with the voluntary sector in Manchester to make sure young carers get the opportunity to get on in school, just like their peers.

I first became aware of children with caring responsibilities after being asked to support Kevin (not his real name) a young boy aged eight.

Kevin was struggling in school due to the problems he faced in his home life. His mum’s mental health issues were having an impact on his schooling. His attendance was not as good as it should have been. His mum’s mental health difficulties made it really hard for him to get out of the house and get to school because he was too worried to leave her alone. To get extra support in place for Kevin, I contacted Family Action, a charity which is commissioned by Manchester City Council to provide a city-wide service to support young carers and their parents.

Family Action assessed Kevin’s needs and provided a lot of activities for him which helped to raise his self-esteem and confidence. He would come into school and readily talk about what he had been doing, whether it be group work or football, and it gave him something to focus on other than the problems at home.

Family Action worked to support his mother and through working together the family circumstances changed and his attendance and wellbeing greatly improved. We helped him understand and feel more comfortable and able to leave his mum. That was my first experience interacting with a young carer and it highlighted to me the particular vulnerabilities these young people face and the importance of ensuring they have the right support in and outside the classroom.

Working with Family Action has helped me to identify children who have a caring role more readily. I can always ask them for advice or refer a family to them. For primary school children, signs to help identify young carers might include attendance issues.

They could be quite often late for school, their appearance in school might not be as it should, and sometimes children may be tired or have absences mainly after a weekend. Other indicators are their emotional state coming into school or sometimes they will tell you things that are going on at home which will help identify their caring role. At Harpur Mount we take the view that it is important to understand the reasons behind why children might be late, have not done their homework, or why they are not attaining what they are capable of.

We are putting structures in place to try and help identification and with the support we offer young carers, giving them more confidence and making sure parents feel more supported.

We have recently been awarded the Leading Parent Partnership Award which highlights our commitment to working with parents. It is a national award that provides a coherent framework through which schools can deliver effective parental engagement. Our work with marginalised parents, such as those of young carers, is part of this approach.

We are in the process of becoming an academy school from January 2013 and so we are rewriting all our policies which will include support for young carers. In the interim period we are making our attendance officer aware that some children may need to come in late without it negatively affecting their attendance.

We also do home visits to engage with parents. Staff are being made more aware of young carers, and when we identify a young carer the class teacher will be informed of things to be mindful of. In addition, we have incorporated young carer awareness into our safeguarding training, so class teachers can also help us by looking out for identifying characteristics so we can follow this up with parents and meet with them to check if the family needs extra support.

This safeguarding training has been a valuable tool for staff, and for raising awareness of young carers in general. Making the connection between a parent with mental health problems, for example, and a child coming to school late or being a bit upset is vital in understanding the needs of young carers.

Class teachers are able to help us identify young carers by the issues they present. For instance, one girl was identified because she would come into school and her clothes would not be ironed and were not washed everyday. When we spoke to her, we found that she was doing all the washing herself as part of her caring role.

For primary children, one of the key points in their school lives is the transition to secondary school. For young carers this can be even more daunting because they might go from a small school where they only have to disclose their caring role to one member of staff to a large secondary school with lots of different teachers and a more pressured environment.

We support all our pupils through transition but young carers get particular attention. Our children spend a whole week at their feeder school and I will meet with the school’s safeguarding officer and highlight any issues and identify young carers so that the secondary school is aware that they might have additional needs. I will tell them what support young carers have received already so that they can continue with this.

Harpur Mount is committed to making young carers feel just as important as every other child. These are just some of the measures we have put in place by working with our local young carers service. If you are interested in improving services for young carers in your school, your local young carers service is a good place to start. There is also lots of information online. Supporting young carers in school means we can help all children achieve their full potential.

• Michelle Dale is safeguarding and equality champion at Harpur Mount Primary School in north Manchester.

Further information

Family Action works with 45,000 children and families a year, providing practical, emotional and financial support. For more about its work in schools and its Be Bothered! campaign to raise awareness of young carers in school, visit

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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