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‘They just don’t get it’

Young adult carers experience significant disadvantage as a result of their caring responsibilities – not least in education. While there is some creative and flexible provision out there, too often providers fail to take account of the specific needs and responsibilities of young carers, says NICOLA AYLWARD


pproximately 230,000 18-24 year olds in the UK provide significant levels of care, most commonly to a parent or sibling. However, due to

the often unseen nature of caring, and the reluctance of many young adults to be identified as carers in official statistics, it is thought that in reality this figure is much higher.

The comments below were made by young

adult carers who participated in focus groups and interviews as part of recent NIACE research, Access to Education and Training for Young Adult Carers, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. They give an indication of the day-to-day difficulties faced by these young people:

I became unable to do anything except care for my daughter and my mum. I now cannot work, go into education, etc. I would like to be able to go into further education.

When I was at school I told a teacher about my mum. He made me tell the whole class about her and about how I help her. I hated it. Teachers just don’t get it.

I started helping out with my mum when I was about four. It wasn’t ‘til I was about eight that I realised things at home weren’t ‘normal’. I did have some friends at school, but I’ve always felt different – people don’t understand – I got picked on a lot. I just wanted to finish school and get away from it.

As a result of their caring responsibilities, young adult carers form a significant proportion of the ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) cohort; a group that, as a result of the economic downturn, is currently the subject of renewed vigour to secure participation in learning and improved levels of achievement. The findings from the research provide clear evidence that young adult carers experience significant problems and high levels of disadvantage as a result of their caring responsibilities. Such difficulties have a direct impact upon their motivation, opportunity and ability to engage in effective learning. As a consequence, a significant proportion of young adult carers have low aspirations, fail to achieve their potential and leave education with few or no qualifications. In addition, negative experiences of learning, such as bullying and lack of

understanding by peers and professionals, mean that young adult carers often become deeply marginalised and ‘turned off ’ learning at a early age. NIACE’s research uncovered some

examples of learning provision throughout the country that is creative, flexible and responsive in meeting the needs of young adult carers. However, it also found that a high proportion of young adult carers are unable to effectively participate in learning, as provision fails to take account of their very specific needs and responsibilities as carers. The young adults that NIACE consulted expressed a passionate commitment to their caring role and to the wellbeing of the people that they care for:

I love my mum and I want to look after her. She’s comfortable with me, she wouldn’t like it if somebody else had to come and help her. It’s my responsibility.

They also identified a number of positive benefits derived from being a young adult carer:

In some ways I hate being different [to other young adults] but in other ways I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved. I think I’m more mature than lots of other young people, and I’m good at sorting things out, money and stuff ... and talking to officials. I’ve had to grow up fast.

Although I don’t get the chance to do lots of things, in many ways I think it’s made me more determined.

The vast majority of young adult carers do not want to relinquish their caring role; they simply want opportunities to engage in learning in ways that do not compromise their caring responsibilities, their needs as individual young adults and the needs of their families and the people that they care for. NIACE’s research identified a range of factors that can have a positive impact upon young adult carers’ engagement in learning and improve their wellbeing, these include:

• Flexible provision: for example, recognition that young adult carers may not be able to achieve high attendance levels; catch-up sessions; and the opportunity to learn at home.

• Relaxed provision: many young adult NOVEMBER 2009 ADULTS LEARNING 29

carers report negative experiences of school. Provision should therefore be relaxed and comfortable and ‘different’ to school.

• Sensitive arrangements: for example, providing young adult carers with the opportunity to have their mobile phone switched on during lessons.

• Emotional support: for example, access to a mentor or counsellor, or small group sessions with other carers.

• Holistic support: for example, access to a transitions worker, or a support worker, who will develop an understanding of the caring responsibilities of a young adult and how these responsibilities impact upon their life.

• Effective multi-agency working: for example, through contact and the sharing of information with other services that support young adults carers, such as Connexions and social services.

Building on the findings of this research, NIACE has recently secured funding from the Department of Health’s Third Sector Investment Programme for a project called Who Cares? Promoting Family Focused Learning Opportunities for Young Adult Carers. This project will support practitioners who work with young adult carers to develop learning opportunities that are family- focused and responsive to their needs. It will also have an explicit focus upon the needs and experiences of young adult carers with a learning disability, a group of potential learners about whom little is currently known. The main outputs from the project will be a staff resource pack, a policy briefing paper and accessible materials for learners.

The final report from the NIACE/ Nuffield research – along with a joint report produced by NIACE and the National Extension College for the Learning and Skills Council called Including Carers: towards a framework for meeting the needs of carers in further and adult education – will be launched this autumn. To request copies of either report, or for further information about the Who Cares? project, contact Nicola Aylward, Project Officer (Young Adults) at NIACE on 0116 2047059 or e-mail

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