Hidden from View: The Untold Stories of Young CarersSep 2021
At sixteen, my day would start well before school at 6am and finish much later too. As a young carer, I had to support my mum, who suffers from DiGeorge Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects mobility and the immune system, and my younger brother, Tom, who has ASD. Before I even got to my first lesson, I would have made sure Tom was ready for school, given mum her medication and made her a cup of tea. After I came home, there was always a long “to do” list before I could think about anything else or even take a breather. From washing laundry, making dinner, and cleaning the house to helping Tom with his homework, and supporting mum after one of her many operations, my routine was always frenetic.
Looking back, it all seems a bit surreal. How did sixteen-year-old me manage it all? How was I able to juggle caring for my family with a packed school day, homework, exams, revision, and everything else that fills a young person’s life? But the reality is that it just felt normal. However, from the vantage point of adulthood, there was clearly nothing “normal” about my childhood, especially compared to many of my peers at school who enjoyed the usual freedoms teenagers often take for granted. I’m incredibly proud of how I coped, and I truly believe it made me a stronger person, but my story is not an isolated one. Around the UK, one in twelve young people between the ages of five and eighteen is considered a young carer and must take on responsibilities in the household to support a sibling, parent or grandparent. According to a study by the BBC and the University of Nottingham, there are around 700,000 young carers in the UK and yet, their lives often remain hidden from view and their stories untold.
In some ways, I was one of the luckier ones. I have a loving family who never held me back and, in particular, I had a very supportive grandfather, who understood the challenges I faced as a young carer. He was ambitious for me and ensured I had everything I needed to do well at school. Thanks to his support, I loved studying and felt an intrinsic motivation to strive for good grades. Luckily, my form tutor (and history teacher) was also an immense source of support. I felt comfortable talking to her when things were particularly difficult, and she responded empathetically by helping me catch up or extending a deadline, so I never felt like I was falling behind. I even went on to study History at university, partly thanks to her!
However, lucky as I was, I often felt somewhat invisible at school, and it was clear that not all my teachers knew or understood the pressures I was under. Even in 2021, most schools barely discuss the issue of young carers even though there is a substantial attainment gap between this group and children who do not have caring responsibilities. The statistics sadly bear this out. On average, young carers miss 48 school days a year and are likely to have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE compared to their peers. Despite this, there is not yet a national conversation within education about closing this gap or putting in place interventions to support young carers. The issue is undoubtedly complex. Most young carers do not want to be seen as substantially different and we do not need an outpouring of pity. Rather, educational professionals, policy makers and the third sector need to start a dialogue about how best to understand and support these children. High expectations are of course vital, but schools need to have concrete strategies to ensure each child reaches their potential regardless of their background.
MYTIME Young Carers, a charity I now work for, is committed to driving change for young carers by raising awareness in schools. The Level Up Programme has been designed to train all school staff about the challenges young carers face, their additional responsibilities and most importantly how to identify them. It is our aim that no young carer should remain hidden and should receive all the support they deserve to be able to thrive. In addition to this training, we also work with schools on young carers’ policies which detail what strategies will be put in place to support them. We also create resources to help students understand what young carers are and correct misconceptions about disabilities. From my own experience, I know I would have greatly appreciated teachers understanding my extra responsibilities and identifying that, due to my context, I was excelling in all my subjects. Additionally, I think having my peers learn about disabilities and young carers and addressing some of the stigmas would have made me feel less uncomfortable discussing my home situation.
Today I am very proud of the fact that I was a young carer and would not want to change any aspect of my childhood because it has made me who I am. The skills I gained have been invaluable as I have transitioned into adult life – I am very organised, know how to manage my time efficiently and I am a good communicator, all essential skills for employment. However, I also feel that my experiences have given me a drive and passion to help young people and make sure they receive equal opportunities and a level playing field. I am so excited at the prospect of helping other young carers feel supported and proud of their unique role!
Level Up (School Support) Programme Coordinator