Coping with school and family life - Suffolk young carers share their stories
- Credit: MARIAM GHAEMI
Getting a little brother ready for school, making food for dad or being a calming influence on a sibling with behavioural issues - these are some of the varied roles of remarkable young carers in Suffolk.
A group of six young people aged between nine and 13 from Westley Middle School in Bury St Edmunds spoke to this publication about their daily lives as young carers, the challenges they face and the support they receive.
They are registered with Suffolk Family Carers, a charity that works with them, both in and out of school, to ensure they get the chance to experience childhood and help them cope with emotions like stress and anxiety that can arise from their caring roles.
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.
Some young people may not even recognise that they are a young carer, but the charity works with schools to identify them.
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With the help of Suffolk Family Carers, schools are able to spot that a particular child who is regularly late or unable to complete homework on time could be struggling with the demands of their home life.
Mornings are often a particularly tense time for young carers as they try to not only get themselves ready for school, but their siblings too.
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Ruby Proctor, 11, has three siblings. Her mum suffers with an illness and her dad can only use one arm.
She said: “The mornings are really stressful as my dad has to go to work about 7am and I have to get ready myself.
“My sister gets picked up at 7.30am, so I have to make sure she is ready for school and also my brother and my younger brother.
“My mum stays in bed until about 8am because of her illnesses, so I have to make sure my brothers have breakfast and it’s really stressful and I don’t realise I have to have breakfast as well.”
And at the end of the day, it is sometimes 10.30pm before she is able to sit down to begin her homework - so the school’s homework club can give her the time and space she needs.
Phoebe Martin, 13, who has four siblings and does not always manage breakfast, said: “I care for my brother [aged 10]. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) so sometimes I have to calm him down.
“I help him with things. If he’s upset I talk to him if mum’s busy and when he wants to do something I will do it with him and if he wants to be left alone I will try to leave him alone.
“So being a young carer, sometimes it’s really stressful, but when you get to go to the [young carers’] club it just makes everything a bit better.”
She added: “Sometimes I get so stressed I get really annoyed with him. I try and stay calm because I don’t want to get annoyed with him, but it’s really hard not to.”
She said a respite trip to France through Group 86 helped her understand “what it means to have a little break, and then I was back to normal”.
Ellie Bird, 12, said she became a young carer two years ago after her dad - who is a caretaker at the school - had an operation.
“It was mainly helping him up the stairs and stuff and going to the toilet or getting in there so he could go and making him food and stuff and getting his clothes and everything and helping him get dressed,” she said.
She also described how she tries to calm her nine-year-old brother down as he “gets really angry with things”.
Lilly-Rose Martin, nine, worries about her five-year-old brother who has epilepsy as there is a chance he could get hurt when he suffers a seizure.
At home, they try and cover anything hard or sharp as a safety precaution, but Lilly-Rose, who also has a baby sister, still feels anxious.
She said: “He’s got a scar and every time you see the scar it reminds you of when it happened.”
Mornings can also be a stressful time in her household as her brother can “wake up and have seizures and go back to bed and then when it’s time to leave he’s not dressed for school”.
Statistics on young carers and education, provided by Suffolk Family Carers
• Nationally, one in five high school pupils are young carers
•One in 20 miss school because of their caring role
•60% are bullied at school and many feel socially isolated. Being bullied during the later years of primary school has a strong association with lower attainment in secondary school
•One in 12 young carers spend more than 15 hours a week caring for a parent or sibling – that is equivalent of two full working days
•On average, young adult carers achieve nine GCSE grades lower than their peers (equivalent to nine Cs versus nine Bs)
•Young adult carers are twice as likely to be NEET (not in education, training or employment) than their peers
What support is available to these young carers?
Suffolk Family Carers said there is a growing evidence base that suggests caring can have a significant impact on young people’s physical and mental health, social lives, education and employment opportunities, but it can also help them build some valuable life skills, such as resilience and empathy.
Hannah Barton, marketing manager at Suffolk Family Carers, said her charity - which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year - helped more than 1,000 young carers in schools in 2018.
Read more: Suffolk Family Carers scoops national awardWestley Middle School, which is part of the Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust, is one of 90 schools across Suffolk signed up to the Suffolk Young Carers Schools Award programme, which helps staff to identify and support young carers.
Sheree Driver, a young carers adviser with Suffolk Family Carers, said Westley has now achieved ‘silver’ for “great work” including assemblies for the whole school to raise awareness and regular lunch-time drop-in sessions, and young carers have made an informative film for the school community.
Katy Thomas, pastoral support manager at the school, said training equipped staff to look out for young carers and mental health awareness sessions recognised that young carers are more at risk of mental health problems.
Out of school, a Suffolk Family Carers monthly social club for nine to 15-year-olds at a local community centre is a space for them to have fun and try different activities, such as arts and crafts.
Phoebe said: “Sometimes I don’t like telling people I’m a young carer because I could get picked on or something and also I have anxiety so I worry a lot and sometimes I get really angry so I struggle with that.
“Being a young carer sometimes puts more stress on me, but when I go to the club I calm down.”
Ms Driver said feeling angry was a “natural response” to caring and it was about recognising not to feel guilty about these emotions.
Michele Mann-Jones is a teacher at Westley Middle School, but also runs Group 86 - part of the hcpt charity - which takes children in need of a break to France at Easter.
She said: “These children may not have the opportunity to go on holiday. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They get one-to-one support with volunteer help.”
She added: “We see the change, but it’s getting the feedback from their teachers and peers and families telling of their maturity and general wellbeing. You cannot fail to feel great if you have been away.”
Mrs Thomas, who can offer one-to-one sessions with students, added young carers can be so worried about leaving the person they are supporting, but they realise it was actually ‘alright, they were okay’.
Does there need to be greater awareness about young carers?
Suffolk Family Carers chief executive Kirsten Alderson said: “We always need to talk about it. It has got a higher profile in recent years. It’s talked about more, but it’s still amazing how many people don’t know about the effect of being a young carer on young people.
“We are talking about the young carers we know about. There are some who will be working with social workers or they are under child protection because their situation is really complex and difficult and we wouldn’t expect them to be referred to our charity.”
What is Suffolk County Council’s role?
Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said: “Suffolk County Council currently has an existing young carers strategy in place until the end of 2019.
“We are in the process of consulting a wide range of young carers and other key stakeholders to help build our knowledge of the most appropriate services and support for this cohort.
“This consultation will subsequently help to inform our new young carers strategy which will be published in 2020.
“A figure of 9,000 young carers is referenced in our existing strategy as this is an assumed number based upon national statistics. We are currently working with our primary provider to gain a better understanding of the number of both identified and hidden young carers in the county.
“At present the council grant funds a range of services to support Suffolk’s young carers.
“One of the services we support is Suffolk Family Carers, a county-wide service which 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.
“The council appreciates the need for respite for young carers which is why this grant funding also extends to providing the allocation of Max Cards (leisure subsidy cards) as well as regular activity sessions at the Involve Centre in Lowestoft, Achieving Aspirations in Stowmarket and IO Radio in Ipswich.
“We also support residential activity sessions at Thorpe Woodlands Activity Centre and Pro Corda in Leiston Abbey.”
•For more information about Suffolk Family Carers see here.