I can’t imagine there’s a single person on this planet who, at some point in their lives, has not had a dream or ambition they wanted to achieve. Mine was to be a professional pilot.
Whether we want to succeed in education, business, politics or another sphere, our aspirations and desires are acutely personal – never more so than when we are young. So, when life circumstances change, resulting in children and young people caring for parents or siblings whilst still in school, higher education or work – it’s not difficult to understand how hopes and dreams can be derailed.
That’s why ‘When I Grow Up’ is this year’s theme for Young Carers Awareness Day. Organised by Carers Trust, it’s about remembering what we aspired to in our youth, connecting those aspirations to better ways to support young carers now and helping them fulfil life goals alongside caring.
An estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK provide care in, or outside, family homes for someone who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misusing drugs or alcohol. The median age of a young carer is 13. On average, 2 young carers in every UK secondary school miss or cut short around 10 weeks of school each year because of their caring role. Many report problems coping with school work and nearly 60% say they struggle to meet deadlines.
Most young carers are happy and proud to care for loved ones, but too often this important role goes unnoticed. Young people not only have to cope with the complexities of growing and learning, but also that of their parents or siblings’ health conditions, preventing them from enjoying childhood in the way other children do. It’s a challenge no one, regardless of age, should face alone - especially if they have their own health concerns.
However, when you consider the difficulty of identifying young carers (some choose to keep their caring role private or may not see themselves in that way), it is likely that nationally – as with older carers - we are underestimating numbers and levels of need. Whatever the scale of the problem, our children’s futures should not be compromised by a collective lack of awareness which exposes them to excessive or inappropriate caring responsibilities.
Young carers need to be identified early and directed to help and support already available in many schools and colleges, such as the young carers in schools programme. Identification, though, should not be an end in itself. We must support young carers to achieve their potential at school, in further education, training and work.
It’s why the new national carers strategy, launching this year, has such an important role to play in facilitating opportunity, health and wellbeing for all carers. It will recognise that truly effective support can only happen when we reach beyond health and care services into schools, workplaces and community centres. The more we all know, the more we can do to help.
The strategy will build on progress made in recent years. We’ve already changed the law to improve how young carers and families are identified and supported. And our work with care sector partners, including Carers Trust, Children’s Society and the Learning and Work Institute - means that together we are helping local authorities to plan, commission and deliver services providing better outcomes.
I personally feel very fortunate about the opportunities I’ve enjoyed in my life – opportunities that have culminated in the enormous privilege to be health minister with responsibilities for carers and the cared for. If I had been obliged to take time out to look after loved ones in my teens or twenties, my life may have turned out quite differently.
I’d therefore like to echo the Carers Trust’s challenge to get involved and take action to raise awareness and support for young carers. In your communities, schools and work places display posters, post messages on social media, and even record short films about what you wanted to be when you were younger. You’ll find plenty of resources to support you on the Carers Trust’s website.
In short, let’s realise our collective ambition to do more for young carers – they deserve it.