Young carers are finding it easier to drop out of school than fit into a system that’s failing them, an ACT inquiry into education and inclusion heard this week.
One young boy caring for his mother said he had “half his brain at home” because every time he heard an ambulance, he thought she was dead. Without his phone, he could not monitor his mother and did not know what was going on during the day.
Another found it easier to stay home because the phone he needed to receive updates about his mother’s heart conditions was banned at school. He could not concentrate on learning as he was constantly worried about missing a notification and no one being there to respond to an emergency.
Carers ACT CEO Lisa Kelly said there were often workable solutions to these problems – like having a teacher carry around the mobile so the notification would not be missed – but the organisation had to go in and advocate for students to find them.
Young carers are more prevalent than most people might think, with around two to three in every classroom, and almost half a million carers under the age of 25 around Australia.
But due to their caring role, almost half of young carers don’t finish high school and two-in-three experience mental illness.
This is exacerbated by stigma and discrimination about the condition of their parents, making young carers feel unsafe at school.
Ms Kelly told the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education and Community Inclusion that schools need to take a more proactive role and not wait until children stop showing up because by then it was already too late.
“A lot of our young carers would prefer to be schooled at home but we would oppose that as a standard position because we believe the social interaction young people get at school – the relief and the respite – is fundamental,” she said.
“Being a young carer is challenging enough to start with. To become fully isolated at home and be consumed by the caring role 24 hours a day is going to have a significant impact on that young person.
“We are going in and working with schools to make concessions … school enrollment forms ask ‘are you a carer?’ but then we do not do anything proactively about that.”
Schools often do not acknowledge what the caring role means or looks like for these children to make school safer and more accessible, Ms Kelly said.
Carers looking after parents with an erratic mental condition can replicate this unpredictable behaviour at school. They are often getting into trouble because they are behind, or teachers raise questions about why they have not been at school.
It then becomes easier to stop attending where the schools do not make adequate concessions for these carers, Ms Kelly said.
“It is the experience of community that sticks with us about school,” Ms Kelly said. “It is the friends that we make and the way we were treated that sets the foundation of expectations for the rest of our lives, to some degree.”