It’s time to start counting carers…

This post was originally published by the Learning and Work Institute as part of their Festival of Learning.

There are 370,000 carers in Wales. That is 370,000 people, aged from 5 to over 80, providing unpaid care to their friends and family. That is the figure reported in the 2011 census. It’s not perfect, it’s probably underrepresented and it’s the product of a broad brushstroke of a definition. But it’s still a solid, evidenced figure that we are able to use with a degree of authority.

What we cannot state with any authority is how many carers are in post-16 education in Wales. This despite the evidence that shows us that carers are four-times more likely to leave further or higher education, the evidence that shows us that two thirds of student carers regularly worry about not having enough money to meet their basic living expenses. The evidence that shows us that part-time is the provision that meets carers’ own unique needs and yet is incentivised less than full-time in Wales, providing less financial return to institutions.

Why don’t we know how many carers are in further and higher education in Wales? Simply put, because carers in education often go under the radar, often do not identify themselves and when they do have no clear point of contact in their college, university or course for support.

So our dangerous idea? It probably seems mundane and simple, but we just want to see post-16 education providers in Wales counting carers. That’s the first step in putting together a solution that delivers for carers, that enables them to participate in education, that protects their wellbeing and that helps deliver a more economically competitive Wales.

There’s a lot to be done to deliver flexible education that meets the needs of carers, but it has to begin with the simple act of counting them. Currently, we do not know how many carers are in our institutions, what they are studying, how they are studying, how old they are, where they are in our communities, how many of them finish their courses… The list is endless.

We know the value of data in making our post-16 education system responsive and effective, and yet we have a substantial gap in our data – of the 12% of Wales’ population that provides unpaid care, we don’t know how many of them are in education.

Currently strategies for carers in post-16 education are ad-hoc and variable. Once we start to collect this data and understand it, then we can start thinking about the next steps we need to take to meet the needs of carers in education. Counting carers won’t be easy, post-16 is a diverse and messy place with different datasets and reporting methods across modes and institutions.

For higher education it may be a combination of a tick-box on a UCAS application form and institutions collecting the data and reporting it to the Higher Education Statistics Authority. For non-higher education post-16 provision, we’ve already seen a move in the right direction with the Lifelong Learning Wales Record. From this year the enrolment form includes a question about caring responsibilities, question LN80. But this question makes no distinction between those with caring responsibilities as a parent and those providing unpaid care. And more troubling, the question is only mandatory for work-based learners.

Carers are a vital support system for social services and the NHS in Wales, they provide £7 billion worth of unpaid care every year. But caring places demands on carers that can make accessing and achieving in education difficult and challenging, and often how post-16 education is delivered creates further barriers. Let’s take the first step to recognising and supporting those who provide 96% of care in the community in Wales and count our carers, and in doing so start developing a flexible post-16 education offer that works for them.

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