Children as young as four are doing remarkable things to help care for their families but for many it can be a lonely and daunting task.
A survey by the Carers Trust of over 300 children who look after sick or disabled relatives found that the majority are struggling in school and finding it difficult to socialise. 82% are suffering from stress.
It is difficult to determine the true number of young carers in England mainly because a lack of a common definition of what being a young carer is. The Carers Trust puts the figure at 700,000 in the UK. My own research published in late December used as a basis the number of those who had self-identified in the 2011 census, and estimated that there are currently around 166,000 in England. Whichever definition is taken, there are huge numbers of children spending hours doing vital tasks such as shopping, cooking and cleaning on which their sick or disabled loved ones depend. The contribution these children make is invaluable, and the children I have met do what they do willingly, but there is also a cost. They need our help to cope.
My research found that despite a statutory duty to assess young carers' needs, councils in England only provide around 20% with help. A minority are assessed as not requiring support but the vast majority are unknown to authorities and remain unsupported.
The situation is worse in some areas than others. Young carers in London are less likely to receive support than in any region in the country, a particularly stark division when compared to the neighbouring South East, where support rates are almost double. Of all the English regions, it is councils in the South West which identify the greatest proportion of young carers. But we are still talking about small percentages being noticed - all the numbers suggest that no local authority in England is remotely close to identifying or supporting all of its likely young carers.
We need to offer young carers more across the country. We have long known of the heavy toll being a carer takes on children, something backed up by research published recently to mark Young Carers Awareness Day.
There are ways we can help. Many children have told me how much they have gained from being involved in peer support networks - ensuring that they can turn to someone experiencing similar issues can be invaluable. But not all young carers will understand the burden they are dealing with and are unlikely to seek help, so we need to ensure that authorities work closely with primary and secondary schools to identify and refer potential cases as early as possible. There are also imperatives for councils to reach these children early as we know that young carers are more likely than the national average to be not in education, employment or training at ages 16 to 19, which may present further challenges for local services. Research from the Association of Adult Social Services and NHS England suggests that investment in carers' services to support them in their caring role is financially beneficial for social care and sees a significant return on any investment made, equating to a saving of £4 for every £1 invested.
There are some excellent initiatives underway from councils and charities but without proper resourcing the problem will continue to grow. Young carers make a phenomenal contribution to others on a daily basis without complaint. They deserve our attention and help.