We must all care for young carers
I had the pleasure of chairing a seminar last week on the issue of Young Carers. Some excellent presenters and a great audience with a lot of enthusiasm to do something about the issue.
I’ve been aware of the issue of Young Carers for a while but the event brought some of the challenges into focus for me.
First of all the numbers. In the last census in 2011 166,000 people in England were identified as young carers. That is 20% more than the comparable figure in the 2001 census. But it is also by all accounts a massive underestimate of the real picture and other surveys have suggested the numbers may be as great as 700,000. This reflects, in many cases, the reluctance of many young people to identify themselves as carers, in particular if they are caring for someone with mental health problems or substance misuse issues.
The second is understanding the impact which caring responsibilities can have on the chances of the young people involved. I would thoroughly recommend “Hidden from View” an excellent report produced in May 2013 by the Childrens’ Society which uses the rich data from the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England (LSYPE) to cast a spotlight on what is happening.
The findings are stark. While “caring responsibilities” cover a wide range of different circumstance 1 in 12 of young carers are caring for more than 15 each week. 1 in 20 are missing school because of their caring role. Young carers are often living in homes of multiple disadvantage with the average income of families with a young carers £5000 less than those without. Finally and most tellingly caring can have a dramatic impact on educational achievement with young carers, on average, achieving GCSE results 9 grades lower than their peers.
The third shock relates to how little we are still doing to address this issue whether to identify young carers in the first place or provide the right level of support to them or, just as importantly, to the person they are caring for, to ensure that caring responsibilities do not become an intolerable or detrimental burden. My sense is that, in recent years, the benefits of a growing recognition of and interest in this issue has probably been offset by the impact of the enormous financial challenges which social services and other agencies have had to face as a result of austerity. There are beacons of good practice and some of the examples of these, whether in Leeds or Camden and Islington were part of what made last week’s event so inspiring.
What, in addition to pressure on resources, makes this issue challenging is the need for genuine multi-agency working in this area. There are two levels to this. The first relates to professional behaviour. We can no longer afford clinicians or educationalists who address problems in one-dimensional terms. Patients have families and health and social care workers need to know about them if they are to understand the best strategies for care and treatment. Pupils also have families and teachers (and Secretaries of State for Education) need to understand that learning does not happen in a vacuum. The second level of course relates to budgets and to need to ensure money can be spent across organisational boundaries in the way which best deliver improved outcomes for individuals. So what about spending some of the pupil premium on improved support for young carers?
In one area the discussion was able to celebrate some important progress. As a result of some great campaigning work by the Childrens’ Society, the Carers Trust and many other organisations the Government has committed to some important strengthening of the law in respect of the rights of young carers, amending the Children and Families Bill to give all carers under the age of 18 the right to an assessment. We have been there before with carers’ rights of course and assessments, without subsequent access to the help required to address the needs identified, are little help. Nonetheless this looks like an important step forward.
There is nothing new about young caring. In the past where the family was generally the only source of help it was not uncommon for young people to have to care for parents or siblings. In his novel “Our Mutual Friend” Dickens gives a powerful picture in the character of Jenny Wren of a Victorian young carer, herself disabled, dealing with the needs of an alcoholic father.
But in the 21st century we should do better. Young carers are first and foremost young people with the hopes and opportunities of life ahead of them. It is not right to let the burdens of inappropriate caring responsibilities stand in the way.
For an excellent inforgraphic on young carers: