Caring for the carers
Dr Mike Calvert, York St John University
In a previous article, I referred to the complexity of describing pastoral care provision at this time. The range of needs, the sophisticated responses that are required and the limited resources (the main one being time) available mean that young people and their needs can be overlooked and some children and their problems are more visible than others.
We are becoming increasingly aware of a hidden workforce in society: the carer. A recent documentary (ITV: Too Young to Care) revealed that there might be over a million children who care for a sick or disabled relative. In other words, according to these statistics, more than one child in twelve has a caring role and we know that some carers are as young as five years old. The 2001 Census (Office of National Statistics) puts the figure at 175, 000 but it is recognised that this figure might well seriously underestimate the position.
The concerns that stem from this are fairly obvious to the pastoral care community. The children may well not be receiving the level of support that they need. They may well be neglecting their studies (and absenting themselves from school) and underperforming as a result. They may not be able to spend their leisure time with their peers ,enjoy holidays and breaks and make the normal friendships that others enjoy and, in short, may find that their childhood is curtailed or, to use more emotive language, has been ‘stolen from them’.
The reasons that they might well want to be discrete about their caring role are complex and manifold. They may well involve the stigma attached to having a parent who exhibits mental health problems or an addiction or may be associated with the fear of the family being broken up.
There are, however, a number of ways in which the young carer can seek help or help themselves. Granted that not all young people have easy internet access, it is heartening that there are organisations that are tuned in to the needs of these young people and can provide them with help, advice and, most importantly possibly, a community that they can be part of and share their experiences. Young carers is one such example. Providing interactive resources, chat facility, newsletters and helpful advice on sensitive issues such as mental health and how to manage your feelings and changing mental state, the resource reaches out to young people in ways that might be problematic in school with all the pressures on staff.
The New Deal for Carers (2007 Ministry of Health) and the attention of Central Government might well have brought this ‘hidden army’ more to the fore but it is difficult to believe that the recession, the cuts and the arrival of the ‘Big Society’ will make serious inroads to meet the needs of this group.
The purpose of this article is not to put forward a blueprint for action in schools. It might well be useful, however, to suggest that the school looks sensitively at the plight of these young carers, provides staff development on the issues (including publicising useful resources) and deals proactively with a group who might well increase in number if the Big Society does not deliver on its promises and the burden of care falls increasingly on families and the community and that would mean more young carers doing even more.