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Young carer tells MPs - 'At school I may seem distracted, but I'm worrying about mum'

PUBLISHED: 16:00 09 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:49 21 March 2019

Blake helps his mum Libby out with household tasks like cooking and cleaning. She suffers with multiple sclerosis Picture: LIBBY LEONARD

Blake helps his mum Libby out with household tasks like cooking and cleaning. She suffers with multiple sclerosis Picture: LIBBY LEONARD

LIBBY LEONARD

A ten-year-old boy from Suffolk has spoken with "confidence and clarity" at Westminster about how he cares for his mum who has a debilitating illness.

Blake Leonard, from Long Melford, opened up to MPs about the daily tasks he undertakes at home - like hoovering and cooking - that are not normally associated with someone so young and how he has been bullied for not fitting in.

His mum Libby, 39, suffers with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), which means her disability is steadily getting worse. Common symptoms of MS include eye problems, pins and needles, fatigue and pain.

Blake travelled to the capital with Izzy Farrell, 14, from the Ipswich area, who also shared her experiences, and Sheree Driver, a young carers advisor with Suffolk Family Carers, an organisation the youngsters are registered with.

They joined young carers from across the country at the Carers Trust event where MPs were asked to sign a number of pledges, such as asking Ofsted - which carries out school inspections - to include young carers as a named group within the 2019 draft framework.

Blake Leonard has his moment at Westminster to share his experiences of being a young carer Picture: CONTRIBUTEDBlake Leonard has his moment at Westminster to share his experiences of being a young carer Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Blake said the opportunity to speak at Westminster on Monday, March 4, was both “nerve-wracking” and exciting.

He said: “I wanted to kind of get them to realise about young carers so they might give a bit of support.

“I don’t get to do stuff other people get to do because of mum. I cannot get to places.

“At school I may seem to be daydreaming, but I’m actually worrying about mum.”

Sheree Driver, a young carers adviser with Suffolk Family Carers, with Blake and Izzy Picture: CONTRIBUTEDSheree Driver, a young carers adviser with Suffolk Family Carers, with Blake and Izzy Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Blake, who attends Long Melford CE Primary School, said a greater awareness and understanding of young carers would make a real difference, adding “I think it would cut down the bullying a bit”.

He said his Suffolk Family Carers club was a space where “people understand me and don’t judge me because my home life is different”.

Libby, whose mobility is impaired by her MS and also suffers with fatigue, said she was “incredibly proud” of her son.

“For someone so young it was a hell of a thing to do and he spoke clearly and confidently. I couldn’t have done it.”

Suffolk young carers Blake Leonard and Izzy Farrell with Barbara Mulley MP at the event in Westminster Picture: CONTRIBUTEDSuffolk young carers Blake Leonard and Izzy Farrell with Barbara Mulley MP at the event in Westminster Picture: CONTRIBUTED

She said life with MS was “challenging”, adding she is “very dependent” on Blake.

“Young carers do such an amazing job. If it wasn’t for Blake I wouldn’t be able to live on my own,” she said.

Since hearing the experiences of other young carers in Westminster Blake now wants to help others who are less fortunate than him so he is collecting Easter eggs for Suffolk Family Carers to give to children in need.

James Cartlidge, MP for South SuffolkJames Cartlidge, MP for South Suffolk

Why are there concerns about the new Ofsted criteria?

There is great concern from young carers and organisations that support them over the Ofsted draft inspection framework, which is set to remove young carers from groups to which inspectors must pay particular attention.

Anna Morris, head of young and young adult carers at Carers Trust, said the “very real challenges” for young carers are set to get worse with this draft framework, that comes into force in September.

“This is a significant backstep,” she said. “Left unnoticed by inspectors, the needs of this especially vulnerable group will go unsupported in classrooms, putting even more pressure on young carers and their life chances.

Matt Hancock, Conservative MP for West Suffolk Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONSMatt Hancock, Conservative MP for West Suffolk Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONS

“This is why Carers Trust developed a special homework card for young carers to present to MPs and Peers at the event in Parliament.

“The card asks MPs to pledge that they will ask Ofsted to include young carers as a named group in the 2019 draft inspection framework.

“The card also called upon MPs to commit to ask the Minister for Schools to ensure young carers are better identified in the classroom so their unique needs can be better supported.”

Suffolk Family Carers, which is supported by Suffolk County Council, is also campaigning for Ofsted to recognise young carers in the criteria.

A spokesperson said: “This amendment will allow young carers to continue to be identified and supported in schools to ensure they receive the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Libby said this change to the Ofsted framework “bothers me a lot” and “seems madness”.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “The draft 2019 framework sets out clear expectation that schools should understand the needs of all of their pupils.

“We could try to list all the different groups that schools need to consider, but an exhaustive list is impossible and would fail to acknowledge that many pupils may fall across several groups.

“As such, rather than listing groups, our focus has been on understanding need. It should not be interpreted as any group being considered less important.”

The responses of some of our local MPs

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge, Blake’s constituency MP, said he would be raising these concerns over Ofsted’s focus on young carers with ministers.

He said: “I was really pleased to hear about Blake’s visit to Parliament to promote this excellent cause. I am aware of the huge challenges facing carers and applaud all those who taken on such responsibilities.

“Unfortunately, I could not meet with Blake because I was speaking in the schools’ debate in Westminster Hall at that time, where I stressed the better outcomes we are now seeing in local schools, and recounted my positive visit to Hadleigh Community Primary.

“I explained how the headmaster believed that our new funding formula was starting to make a difference and hopefully this will mean more funding over time for all pupils needing extra support.

“The point on Ofsted is an important one and I will now raise it with ministers and write to Blake when I have a response.”

West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, said: “I’m extremely grateful for our young carers in West Suffolk.

“They should be recognised for their important and compassionate work, especially given they often balance their caring responsibilities with their school work. I will continue to do everything I can to champion our brilliant young carers.”

The Carers Trust event, sponsored by Lucy Allen MP, aimed to highlight to MPs and Peers the very real challenges young carers are facing at home and school because of their additional caring responsibilities.

“Having to spend large amounts of time caring for parents and siblings at home can be an isolating experience. It can also have a dramatic impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young carers, as well as their life chances, with many young carers having to miss days at school and achieving lower GCSE grades than their peers as a result,” Ms Morris said.

Who is a young carer?

According to Suffolk Family Carers, if you are aged five to 24 and care for, or are affected by, a family member who has a physical or mental illness or misuses drugs or alcohol, you are a young carer.

Suffolk Family Carers, which is a charity, identifies young carers from work in schools and communities.

It also provides carer assessments and information and guidance on appropriate services available to individual young carers, as well as offering a range of direct support options, such as group discussions and workshops.

A spokesperson for Suffolk Family Carers said: “Suffolk Family Carers was one of a number of carer organisations across the UK who attended the event [Westminster] to voice what really mattered to young carers.

“Both of our young people volunteered to stand up and retell their own personal experience of caring for a family member and how it has impacted on their childhood. They both spoke with confidence and clarity to a large audience and we are very proud of them.”

For more information about Suffolk Family Carers see here.

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