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Fact sheet

How do schools identify young carers?

Original broadcast: www.teachernet.gov.uk/community/hotseats/alexfox/

Introduction

The 2001 census found 175,000 young carers in the UK, but it is known that only a fraction of that number receive any support during their childhood. This is despite the fact that young carers who take on inappropriate caring responsibilities for a sick or disabled family member are at risk of underachievement, absenteeism and bullying. Most young carers go unsupported throughout their childhood, while others bear heavy caring responsibilities for years before a noticeable deterioration in school attendance, achievement or behaviour results in a referral to an Education Welfare Officer, often too late to save their education.

So how do schools identify young carers before they develop complex problems requiring intensive interventions? Are there quick and easy forms of support that can be offered to young carers when they first take on a caring role? How do schools ensure that they are accessible to parents who have disabilities, illnesses or substance-misuse problems.

Mary Jane: I am a teacher in a very busy inner-city school. What are the signs that I can look for in a pupil who has caring responsibilities, and hasn’t approached a member of staff for support?

Alex Fox: All schools have young carers, but most young carers aren’t known to teachers. Some of the signs that a young person is a young carer are the young person missing days from school, handing homework in late, or under-achieving without a good reason. Nearly all young carers are bullied, either because other pupils perceive their families as different, or because they lack social skills. Many young carers are frightened of seeking support, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want and need help. If you have a local young carers’ service, they will be able to help you identify young carers at an early stage, before some of these problems become apparent. They will also be able to provide training. If not, having a named member of staff responsible for young carers can help ensure that hidden young carers know who to turn to.

Mo: If we discovered that a very young pupil were a young carer, should we take particular action? Is there a reasonable age-limit for when children are too young, for example, to care for younger siblings?

Alex Fox: The definition of a young carer is a young person who is taking on caring responsibilities that are inappropriate to their age. Very young carers are at particular risk, but a young carer’s needs vary enormously from individual to individual. The NSPCC gives guidance on a recommended safe age for children to be left alone, but there is no law about this. As a teacher, if you have concerns that a child is at risk of significant harm or is in need of support to protect their well-being, it is important that you work with the young person, their parents and other agencies to keep that child safe. Often, a young carer can be best supported by helping the family to get in touch with support that will ensure the young person does not have to take on an inappropriate caring role in the first place.

J B Owen: What can schools/teachers do as a whole to support young carers while they are in compulsory education?

Alex Fox: The Government’s Carers Strategy recommends that all schools have a named member of staff with responsibility for young carers’ needs. These needs are also highlighted in the DfES’s Circular 10/99, Social Inclusion: Pupil Support. When schools have a young carers’ charter or strategy, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers finds that many more hidden young carers are identified long before their caring role disrupts their education because young carers feel more able to ask for support. Some quite simple interventions can make a big difference, for example young carers tell us that they would like access to a phone at lunch times, so that they can phone home to check up on a ill or disabled relative, rather than feeling they have to go home. Because hidden young carers often have difficult relationships with teachers, an environment where young carers can ask for help can make a big difference.

Peter Smith: I’ve never heard the specific term ’young carer’ before - can you explain what it means please?

Alex Fox: A young carer is a child or young person who is taking on significant caring responsibilities that are inappropriate to his or her age. We are not talking about young people who just help out around the house, which is something that we would hope lots of young people would do. Young carers have family members who have disabilities, physical or mental illnesses or substance misuse problems. There are 3 million children who have parents with some sort of disability, but the last census only found 175,000 young carers. Young people take on inappropriate caring roles when their families are isolated and unsupported, or when parents are unable to recognise the responsibilities that their children are taking on.

Daisy: One of my students is what you would call a ’young carer’. His schoolwork isn’t suffering per se, but as a teaching assistant, I would like to do something to help. Do you know whether any networks or similar exist, so that he can perhaps get in touch with other young people in the same situation?

Alex Fox: It’s really encouraging that you want to help your pupil. You can find out whether there is a local young carers’ service (which would offer him clubs, activities, information, listening support and help for his whole family) via the Trust’s new website for young carers at www.youngcarers.net. He might find it really helpful to meet other young people in similar situations, so that he knows he’s not the only one.

Jim: I am a teacher with a pupil who regularly stays at home to look after her unwell mother, and also her siblings. I want to be supportive, but am worried that my pupil is missing school too often. I don’t know how to bring this issue up without seeming insensitive.

Alex Fox: It sounds like you have identified that this pupil is going to struggle without extra support. You can help by asking the pupil what would help, and perhaps negotiating extensions to deadlines or offering extra support with particular pieces of work, so that the pupil knows you are trying to help, but also hears the message that you value her education. Before asking the young carer about her home situation, it is a good idea to ensure that she knows your confidentiality boundaries.

Barbara Hughes: I read the young carers article on www.teachernet.gov.uk/library and saw the list of signs that can indicate that a pupil is taking care of somebody at home. But how do I distinguish between pupils who are lazy with their homework and play truant and pupils who often miss assignments and classes because they are young carers?

Alex Fox: You’re absolutely right that many of the signs that someone is a young carer could also be signs of a whole range of other difficulties, and this is one of the reasons that around three quarters of young carers are not known to be caring by their schools. Finding young carers at an early stage does require some work, for instance young carers’ services go into schools and deliver assemblies, lessons, and give out questionnaires to identify young people. I feel that this saves time and resources in the long run, because too many young carers go unsupported until they start to have serious problems with education, or even until they drop out of school altogether. Problems like that can soak up resources without ever being properly solved.

Assistant head, Surrey: Would the national curriculum allow for particular flexibilities to accommodate the needs of young carers?

Alex Fox: Young carers’ services often offer PSHE and Citizenship lessons, which have been found to fit in very well with National Curriculum requirements. I used to deliver lessons that looked at how young people in general sought help with problems at home, using young carers as an example, and we would always find that many young people were confused about where to turn for help and what would happen if they did. My colleagues have devised lessons around disability, mental ill health, substance misuse and bullying, to name but a few.

Jon: How should we support parents of young carers?

Alex Fox: Parents who have disabilities tell us that there are many barriers to them feeling fully involved in their children’s education. The Disabled Parents’ Network has recently published a booklet outlining some of them. If parents don’t turn up at parents’ evenings, it is possible that there are physical barriers, such as inaccessible buildings or lack of transport that prevent them from doing so. Some parents who have mental health problems find formal situations intimidating and would be more able to discuss their child’s education over the phone, or one to one. It would be helpful if information about the special needs of parents were sought when children enrolled. Obviously there is a limit to how much a busy teacher can get involved in a pupil’s home situation, but signposting parents to other services and letting them know that you would like to help their children as much as you can will make all the difference.

Graem: Alex, does your organisation cater for young parents as well, or is this considered a different target-group?

Alex Fox: Our organisation supports adults who are caring for a relative who has a disability, illness or substance misuse problem, and this includes parents who have disabled children, but we are not able to support young parents. They have specific needs, and there are some really good services aimed just at that group.

Bryan: Is anything being done to prevent young people ending up with these responsibilities in the first place?

Alex Fox: This is increasingly a big part of our work. We try to link families up with the support that will prevent young people having to become carers, and we are working with policy makers to ensure that all services are working within legislation and guidance that is supportive to young carers and their families. At present, young carers fall down the gaps between adults’ and children’s services. Working in partnership needs to be a reality and not just a buzz word for these families. In an ideal world, no young person would feel they had no choice other than to become a young carer, but we are a long way from that world. The reality is that families often have little choice, and the services they need are not always available, so unfortunately I feel that the work we do to reduce the impact of a young person’s caring responsibilities will continue to be needed.

Peter Smith: How can I talk about young carers issues with my class?

Alex Fox: This is a valuable piece of work, but it’s vital to be aware that there may be pupils in your class who are young carers but who have kept their problems secret from everybody. You should bear this in mind if you are devising exercises that encourage pupils to look at the caring they do in their own lives. Many health conditions attract stigma, so work of this kind is a great opportunity to promote a positive view of disability, for instance, and it is important to avoid encouraging pupils to ’feel sorry’ for disabled people. It would be useful to point to the social model of disability: disabled people are not disadvantaged by their physical impairment so much as by inaccessible surroundings and prejudice. Ideally, it would be good to find out about local sources of support for young carers, if there are any, before a lesson which may uncover hidden need. There is a section for teachers on our website: www.youngcarers.net.

Teacher: Shouldn’t schools contact social services if a young carer’s education is suffering? Don’t social services have a responsibility to support members of the community so that children’s education doesn’t suffer?

Alex Fox: Schools should always contact social services when they have reason to suspect that a child or young person is at risk of significant harm. Many young carers, while needing support, are not considered at risk of significant harm, and the most effective way of helping them is to work in partnership with other people that can support the child, and with agencies that support adults who have care needs.

Joseph: How can I get a young carer to talk to me?

Alex Fox: It’s important to talk to the young person, either in private, or with them and a supportive friend of theirs. Most young carers tell us that they would like their teachers to know their situation and to offer them support, but many struggle to be open about problems that they have been keeping secret for years. All pupils should be aware of who they can take personal issues to within school and exactly what will and won’t happen if they do so. Your school is likely to have written guidelines. Pupils often have unfounded fears about their personal information being shared too widely. As with any other sensitive situation, the best approach is often to do more listening than talking, and to work at a pace that is led by the young person. Pupils can ask for support in confidence from our website: www.youngcarers.net.

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