The 7,000 very young children working as carers being let down in Britain today

While the rights of children who are caring for a loved one are protected in legislation, in practice it's not working for many thousands. Hannah Fearn looks at the scale of the problem

There are an estimated 127,000 carers under the age of 18 in the UK. (PA)
There are an estimated 127,000 carers under the age of 18 in the UK. (PA)

Across the UK hundreds of thousands of children are caring for adults and siblings in their family, but many go unsupported by teachers, social workers and other child protection groups.

For the first time, a report by an influential cross-party group of Lords and MPs has demonstrated the true scale of the impact that caring responsibilities have on young lives - including some children as young as age five.

Hannah Fearn unpicks the data.

How many children are caring for others in the UK? According to a new report from the all party parliamentary group on young carers, the most recent surveys suggest there are 127,176 carers under the age of 18 and 229,690 young adult carers between the ages of 16 and 25 in the UK. However, experts warn this is likely to be a significant underestimate.

Are some of these school pupils? Yes. According to the latest census, almost 39,000 school pupils are young carers, which makes up 0.5 per cent of the school population. However a study by BBC and University of Nottingham found that 10 per cent of school pupils were actually taking on high levels of caring responsibilities, so the true number is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.

So are most of them teenagers? Many are, but there are thousands of carers who are still in primary school and even young enough to need care themselves. In fact, the 2021 census identified 7,389 children aged five to seven who were providing unpaid care. Of those, 1,746 were providing 50 or more hours of care a week.

That’s so young! Do they have any support? Some do, but many are missed because most local authorities do not define anyone under the age of eight as a carer.

That doesn’t seem right. It’s not. According to Carers Trust it’s a breach of the law. Policy manager Andy McGowan told Yahoo News: “What we see is that young carers have got really clear rights in legislation, but that’s not happening in practice. They’ve got the right to a young carer’s assessment but the local authority says if you’re aged under 8 you’re not a young carer - even though there’s no legal limit in the law.”

What does it feel like to be a child and a carer? Holly, who works with Carers Trust, cares for her sister who has cerebral palsy, sight loss and epilepsy. She was supported from the age of 14, though she says her responsibilities started when she was much younger. “Although my mum was the main carer, I would often help with physio exercises, some personal care, sight guiding when out in public, or just generally being an extra pair of hands. Whenever my sister was anxious, I would often be looking out for signs that she needed some extra reassurance,” she explained.

Doesn’t it affect their schooling? Of course. Young carers miss an average of 27 days per academic year, the report found, and are less likely to go on to higher education. Even caring for just four hours per week means a young person is less likely to have a degree, and those caring for more than 35 hours a week were 86 per cent less likely to graduate.

hat’s almost a full-time job. Exactly. That’s why 32 per cent of young carers under 18 are not in education or training, compared to just 5.3 per cent of the teen population.

What about their mental health? Caring responsibilities can affect how much time young people can spend with their friends, and also means that they may have additional worries which most children don’t have to manage such as the rising cost of living. A quarter of young carers said they have self-harmed and, of those, 17 per cent had done so in an attempt to take their own life. New research published in the Lancet this week also confirms that becoming a carer is linked to increased psychological distress at every age, including for those aged under 18.

So what can be done to support young carers? The inquiry recommends that the government designs a national carers strategy that specifically sets out support for child carers, and reminds councils, schools and other agencies of their responsibilities towards the youngest people carrying the biggest burdens on their shoulders.

But can anything practical be done now? Carers Trust is calling on every school, college and university to appoint a young carers’ champion to lead on supporting those who need extra help and understanding. “If their mum gets rushed into hospital the last thing [young carers] want to do is to have to tell that story to every teacher and form tutor at school. They just want to be able to tell one person who can then coordinate that support," McGowan says.