Getting in and getting on for young adult carers

Young adults with caring responsibilities are at risk of falling through the access gaps. Nicola Aylward explains a new Learning and Work Institute campaign to support them in higher education

Nicola Aylward is Head Of Learning For Young People at the Learning And Work Institute

Across the UK there are hundreds of thousands of young people who provide unpaid care to family members. These young people are 38 per cent less likely to obtain a degree-level qualification than their peers.

Improved identification and support can help to change this – and should be a core part of universities’ access and participation plans.

Many young adult carers start caring as children, often taking on higher levels of care as they get older; others are thrust into a caring role when a family member suddenly becomes ill. Whatever the circumstances, across all parts of the country, young adult carers are an invisible army.

Dealing with disruption

The Learning and Work Institute estimates that these young people provide over £3.5 billion in unpaid care each year. Despite the huge contribution that they make to their families and to society, young adult carers get a raw deal. They’re often not identified as carers and don’t get the support they need at school and college. Many young adult carers talk about being bullied, feeling isolated, alone and anxious. They often grow up in low-income households, unable to socialise with their peers and get involved in activities outside of school and home.

While at school, young people with caring responsibilities miss an average of 27 days per academic year. This is hugely disruptive, and is one of the reasons why, on average, they achieve 9 grades lower at GCSE compared to their peers.

However, it’s at key transition points that young adult carers often fall through the gaps and become disengaged from learning and work. Young adult carers are three times more likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training) compared to other young people. This, alongside ongoing caring responsibilities, has a huge impact upon their long-term life chances, and often results in them feeling “trapped” in a caring role, with little opportunity to pursue a life of their own. But these outcomes are not inevitable. Better identification of young adult carers, backed up by tailored and flexible support, can make a real difference to their experiences of learning and the outcomes that young adult carers achieve.

Driving further

Our Driving Change in Further Education project, delivered in partnership with Carers Federation, worked with 39 colleges across the UK to review and improve their support for young adult carers. The Driving Change model is based on a whole-organisation approach. Changes that colleges have implemented are embedded in policies, processes and practical support, and are having a sustained impact.

For example, many colleges are now aware of significantly more young people with caring responsibilities. In part this is because they are joining up with local carers services and enabling more young people to make the transition to college. However, it’s largely due to better identification, with some colleges reporting around double the number of young people with caring responsibilities among their student population than previously known. This is crucial, as it’s enabling them to put tailored support in place, which in turn reduces drop out and improves achievement.

Aiming higher

Better identification, experiences and outcomes in further education is long overdue and is a welcome step forward. However, like all young people, young adult carers’ learning journeys shouldn’t be restricted. These young people should have opportunities to go as far as their aspirations, talent and hard work can take them.

Sadly, the reality is very different.

Research published by UCL in May 2023 showed that young adult carers are 38 per cent less likely to obtain a degree-level qualification compared to other young people. This inequality is magnified for young people who provide high levels of care, with those who care for 35+ hours per week 86 per cent less likely to gain a degree-level qualification.

No young person chooses to be a carer. They do it out of love, and often don’t have a choice. It’s shocking that young people who do so much aren’t enabled to achieve their educational potential, and this is the impetus for our new Driving Change in Higher Education project. The 2023 intake of higher education students are the first cohort to be able to identify themselves as carers through the UCAS application process.

This is a really positive change. Identifying young people with caring responsibilities is the bedrock of improving access and outcomes – but equally as important are the measures that universities put in place to offer support.

Beyond the application stage, young adult carers need support to make the transition to university study and life, and they need ongoing support to help them stay in learning and gain their degree. Some providers’ access and participation plans recognise the challenges that carers face and include measures to improve support. However, a step change is needed to put young adult carers on an equal footing with their peers. If they make it to university, most young adult carers continue to provide care – their responsibilities don’t simply end. It’s therefore crucial that universities understand their needs, join-up with local services and implement tailored and flexible support that will make a difference.

Making a difference

The Learning and Work Institute, in partnership with Carers Federation, and supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, is delighted to launch Driving Change in Higher Education. Starting in April 2024, we’ll be working with 25 universities across England. We’re really ambitious about the difference that this project can make, and we’re keen to engage a wide range of partners.

Alongside the changes that individual universities can make, it’s important to continue raising awareness of the challenges that young adult carers face and the role of statutory and voluntary sector organisations in bringing about change. Central to the project will be the voices and experiences of young adult carers themselves. A key part of the Driving Change approach is for universities to engage young adult carers in their plans, to ensure that support really meets their needs. Many young adult carers simply don’t consider going to university. If they didn’t receive good support at school or college, university study is seen as a distant, unachievable aspiration that isn’t an option for them.

Through Driving Change we want to change this, so that all young adult carers get the opportunity to achieve their potential:

I didn’t get good support at school. One or two teachers knew I cared for my mum and my younger sister, but they didn’t understand how it affected me. I was often late, tired and angry. I got into trouble because I was so frustrated, and I was embarrassed.

That all changed when I went to college. I had a brilliant tutor who made sure I got support. He arranged a bursary for me and made sure that all of my teachers knew the pressure I was under. Without this support I wouldn’t have got to university. Going to university was hard. I juggled work, caring and a part time job. I couldn’t live away, so I travelled every day. It was hard and exhausting, but it was for me, and I got my degree, and I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved. [Emily, a young adult carer]

Higher education institutions who want to know more about Driving Change should contact Nicola Aylward or register their interest on our website.

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