For most young carers, getting a good education is not only about their future, but securing an income to support their dependents, be it vulnerable children, their parents, or even their grandparents.

The stresses of education do not end when carers walk out the college gates at the end of the day. Worrying about getting the food shopping done and being preoccupied by the thoughts that they are offering enough care, or the right care for that matter, add stresses too heavy for any 11-18-year-old to bear.

As Stress Awareness Month begins, we take a look at some of the methods colleges and universities are implementing to support their young carers through education.

Who are young carers?

As many as one in five children and young people in the UK are young carers — someone under 18 who helps to look after a family member or a friend who may be ill, disabled or misuses drugs or alcohol. They carry out practical tasks like cooking, housework, and physical care, but often manage the family budget, look after siblings, and assist with giving medicine.

A difficult home life can make education one challenge too many for young carers, who, on average, are absent or have their school day cut short on 48 days per year because of their caring responsibilities.

A report from the Carers Trust found that one in three young carers find their role makes them feel stressed, with 23 per cent saying it had prevented them from making friends.

How can education providers offer help?

A lot of young carers will not put their education at the top of their list of priorities, but often it can prove to be a welcome tool for escapism. Taking themselves out of their daily stresses of caring for a loved one 24/7 may be just the ticket to keeping a carer motivated.

Education is a key driver in helping these young people to lift themselves out of a difficult life situation and it can be beneficial also for the people that depend on them. Whether they have the time for a full-time course or part-time education, there really is something to fit a carer’s needs.

Distance learning

Sometimes, leaving the house for several hours to attend a course is not always possible for young carers. Distance learning is on the rise in line with the ever-increasing need for flexible study among teenagers and the National Extension College (NEC) has recognised that by expanding its range of courses.

The NEC was founded in 1963 and was a pioneer for online and distance learning. It caters for a wide range of subjects, from bookkeeping and business management, to childcare and counselling, with all levels of education catered for, including GCSEs and A levels.

Pastoral care support

In 2018 Newcastle College became one of the first educational institutions in the UK to receive the Quality Standard from The Carer’s Federation, an acknowledgement to their ongoing efforts to support students with caring responsibilities in education.

To achieve the Standard, the college improved the enrolment procedures to identify carers’ needs at an early stage, held Young Carer Awareness days and allocated ‘champions’ who are there to offer support to young adults with caring responsibilities.

Working in collaboration with Newcastle Carers, staff have received trainingon how to best provide for young carers, something that has been rolled out through a mix of pastoral and academic support. The college also assists its young carers by directing them to external agencies which offer specialist support.

Head of Central Support Services at Newcastle College, Rachel Gibson, said: “Young adult carers can often find it difficult to balance education with their caring responsibilities so the work our learning mentors do to provide practical and emotional support is really important.

“I hope that we can continue to improve that support and remove barriers to learning for those that need it.”

Flexible Study

In the 2016-17 academic year, 612,000 students accounted for 24% of all higher education provision, with 158 of the UK’s 163 higher education institutions offering part-time courses. While flexible study may take longer for students to complete their course — typically between four to six years in England — it relieves the pressures on a young carer.

With 79% of young carers worrying about how they move on from education, where access to support is provided, part-time courses will give additional support which might not have been readily available elsewhere.

However educational institutions set up to support their young carers, it seems engagement is the key. A 2019 YouGov survey found that 44% of young carers felt they didn’t get enough support with their emotions and feelings, with just 6% saying they would speak to a professional in mental health services. 

More needs to be done to support these people, according to Carers Trust chief executive Gareth Howells. He said: “I know as a former young carer myself that it’s hard enough for young carers to have to juggle all the pressures of school and exams with caring for family members. They are often dealing with complex problems which many adults would struggle to deal with — from disability and terminal illness to mental health problems, alcoholism and substance misuse.