By Rhiannon Bevan
At a glance, Ronan seems far from the image stirred up by staring at a list of statistics.
He’s in high spirits – joking about his student diet of chicken nuggets and coffee – and most interestingly, he’s open. Clad in a shirt reading, “Do I look like I care?”, you could be forgiven for assuming this outspoken attitude equates to a stress free life.
It’s hard to believe that he’s four times more likely to drop out than his classmates.
Ronan is a young adult carer: one of 375,000 Brits between the age of 16-25 who cares for a loved one with disabilities. Along with the other seven million carers of all ages, he saves the NHS over double its budget, but as they now share, they are not getting enough in return, which makes it even more difficult for them to pursue other aspects of their lives, and in Ronan’s case, getting an education.
“I stayed home because I felt like I had a responsibility to help my family if they needed it”
“High school was a mess” Ronan reminisces,
“I never actually got to go out and see my friends. If I did that was a special moment for me, I could get away from my home life and just be a normal kid”.
Despite caring for his mother from the age of 10, he was only given support during his last year of high school. From this point, he was given the extensions he needed, with the school showing understanding for his situation, but this doesn’t erase the two lots of exams he powered through without this, sacrificing grades and a social life.
“I can remember sitting down with my year six teacher, and she basically said if I didn’t do my homework, if I didn’t do it to the standard that was required I would have to drop down a level or two”
At the age of ten, he describes the level of stress you’d expect from a GCSE student. However, his admission that primary school was “a lot more lenient” than high school can hardly be seen as a complement, given the further five years of neglect from his local council.
“There was a lot more rigidity than there should have been”
But have universities done any better? Further education has notoriously high standards for punctuality, the online age means a split second can be the difference between assignments being marked or outright failed, so how can this fit around the 7 day working week of a young carer, where health can change so drastically?
Speaking to another student carer, Chloe, we get an insight into the balance of responsibilities.
Initially, she is positive. Her university has “a whole team for support” if she needs it, yet the treatment still shows concerns.
“There are issues. We still have to fill out the extenuating circumstances letter”, as any student off with a cold would have to, Chloe explained that she would have to “provide proof” that her caring responsibilities mean she’ll miss a lecture, another stress on the carers schedule.
Unlike Ronan, Chloe left the family home for her further education, something which Suffolk Family Carers encourage in a bid to help carers establish a separate identity. However, speaking to the two, it becomes clear that moving on isn’t easy.
Despite their different living circumstances, their minds are always on those they care for; Chloe admits she feels stressed and worried about what might be happening at home, and Ronan’s entire reason for being at university is to bring in a good wage for his family. He is not surprised that he is less likely to graduate.
“I have considered dropping out myself”, Ronan admits, only having moved into a flat (just a ten minute walk from his mother) two months ago.From these accounts, it is abundantly clear that councils and universities are not doing enough to help carers. Carers assessments – the way councils identify carers in the community – are hard to get, with Ronan only having one in his nearly nine years of caring.
“A lot can happen within a year, if it isn’t timed right, it can have a drastic effect.”, soberly, he shares that his mother’s condition is degenerative and can deteriorate suddenly, something the council hasn’t been flexible enough for.
The help he and his mother did receive in the form of a cleaner was gone within six months and he feels as if his going to university has left a void in the household.
If the council doesn’t step up, he fears he will join the statistic.
“From that day, I can remember fear, ecstasy, sadness”, a student carer remembering results day.
Of the MP’s and universities that have been contacted, only Suffolk responded. They emphasized that they do all they can to assist their students who care for loved ones, but cited problems with the UCAS registration process, which currently offers no way for applicants to declare whether they are carers, again, leaving it to students themselves to request the aid. And it’s difficult to know whether you need aid when it’s all you’ve known from the age of ten.
Despite changes to legislation allegedly making it easier for council to identify and assist carers in the community, little change can be seen from an underfunded NHS. Since the 2014 care act, Ronan has had just one “annual” visit, financial aid aimed at students is difficult to apply for, and the mental illness rate among YAC’s has rose to 45%.
“There are many faces to this dice”, Ronan finishes with.
“I don’t know what I’m going to get”
A huge thank you to Ronan and Chloe for sparing the time to speak to me about this sensitive subject. And thank you to the University of Suffolk, for being the only local university willing to comment.
Update 10/01/18: Following the advice of Carers Trust, UCAS will include an option to self-declare as a carer in their applications 2018. This option was not available for anyone interviewed in this piece. More info at the Carers Trust website.