Young carers: review of research and data

Paper discussing the data and evidence on young carers and young adult carers in Scotland.

4. Young carers' education and employment


This chapter considers the evidence and data on young carers' education and employment. It discusses school experiences and educational achievement; further and higher education; and employment.

Key points:

  • Caring may adversely affect a young person's education but there is inconsistent evidence on the extent of the impact.
  • This may be due to school attendance issues, or experiencing tiredness or bullying.
  • The number of students in further and higher education who say that they are carers declines with each year of age. It is difficult to know whether this is due to changes in caring or educational status.
  • Caring roles may impact on the choice of university and choice of course.
  • Studying offers more flexibility but balancing commitments can be challenging.
  • Around half of young adult carers are in full or part time employment.
  • Financial considerations can be a concern for young carers in education and employment and when considering their work and study options.
  • Flexible work arrangements and sympathetic employers are important for young adult carers seeking employment.

4.1 School Experiences and Educational Achievement

Research suggests that a young person's education can be adversely affected if they are a carer (Dearden & Becker, 2004, p. 3); (Barnardos, 2006, p. 8); (Children's Society, 2013, p. 3). Research in England by the Children's Society (2013, p. 5) found that the young carers in their sample had lower educational attainment compared to their non-caring peers, finding that the average young carers' attainment level was the equivalent of nine grades lower at GCSE (for example nine C's rather than nine B's) than young people without caring responsibilities. Research evidence in this area is quite inconsistent however, with varying numbers of young carers reporting that their caring roles have a negative impact on their education. Other factors such as deprivation are also likely to have an impact. For instance, 27% of young carers at secondary school reported that they had school-related problems (Dearden & Becker, 2004, p. 3) and in another study nearly half of the sample felt their school work was 'affected by their caring role' (Barnardos, 2006, p. 8). In a study which examined the lives of former young carers through retrospective interviews, Frank et al (1999, p. 16) found that 70% of respondents felt that their education had been affected by their caring roles. From the literature review, the three following issues appear to be the most common educational issues that may affect young carers:

  • School attendance
  • Tiredness
  • Bullying

School attendance

Around one in 20 young carers miss school because of their caring responsibilities (Children's Society, 2013, p. 5). Based on three national studies there is some evidence to suggest that the numbers of children and young people missing school due to their caring roles have reduced over the years (Dearden & Becker, 1995) (Dearden & Becker, 1998) (Dearden & Becker, 2004). Newman (2002, p. 618) highlights that we do not know to what extent school absences are due to caring roles or, for example, poverty. Since we know that school absences are more common amongst young people who have a low socio-economic status, studies are required which control for this variable before claims can be made regarding the direct impact of caring on educational experiences. In a recent study of young carers by the Scottish Youth Parliament (2014) just over one in 10 of those surveyed said that they sometimes miss class due to their caring situation.


As already noted, experiencing tiredness due to the caring role has been found to have an educational impact. Nearly half of young carers in a Scottish survey (Scottish Youth Parliament, 2014) said that they are sometimes tired at school due to their caring situation. Young carers in a small scale, Scottish study by Eley (2004, p. 72) shared their experiences of how tiredness affected them. One participant reported getting into trouble with teachers for tiredness, (particularly yawning in class), another shared how they sometimes went into the school toilets to sleep if they had been caring during the night, and lastly another young person shared their general feeling of feeling 'run down' a lot of the time (Eley, 2004, p. 69). Likewise, in the qualitative research carried out by Roche and Tucker (2003, p. 445), one young carer illustrated their experience of arriving at school in a tired state due to her morning routine:

"My day starts at 5. I wash mum, make her comfortable and then get the breakfast ready for the rest of the family… sometimes when I get to school I'm knackered." (Roche & Tucker, 2003, p. 445).


Some studies have found that young carers are more likely to be bullied at school compared to their non-caring peers (Lloyd, 2013, p. 67) (Warren, 2007, p. 142). There has been some concern over the methodological issue of establishing whether bullying is caused directly by the caring role, however some participants in these studies reported that they had been bullied 'specifically for being a carer' (Becker & Becker, 2008, p. 30). Interestingly, in the small study by Cree (2003, p. 306) young people reporting worries about bullying for their caring role was found to decrease with age. The proportion saying that they were concerned about being bullied fell from three quarters of those aged 5-9 years, to one third aged 10-15 years to one quarter of those 16 and over.

While these three issues recur across the literature, it is also important to note that some studies have found that young carers felt their caregiving duties had no effect on their schoolwork (Eley, 2004, p. 69) (Banks, et al., 2001, p. 809). A quarter of those surveyed by the Scottish Youth Parliament (2014) said that their caring situation does not affect their school work. Therefore it is important not to assume that all young carers will have educational problems. Some young people have actually reported that they feel school provides them with respite from the caring role (Gates & Lackey, 1998, p. 13). Young carers have also expressed mixed views on the impact of caring duties on their future opportunities (Scottish Youth Parliament, 2014). Around a third felt that it is more difficult to do well in school and a fifth felt that they had to consider caring responsibilities in decisions about work or further/higher education. Around a third felt that there is no effect. In focus groups, young carers noted they were not able to take advantage of internships, extracurricular activities and additional classes, and worried that this would be disadvantageous to future employment opportunities. It is possible that these mixed views are influenced by broader factors around family context and circumstances and the support available to young carers and their families.

4.2 Further & Higher Education

Data from Scotland's 2011 Census shows that the number of students [12] who say that they are carers declines with each year of age. There were 1470 students at 18 years of age who identified themselves as carers in the Census, which is 4% of the student population. Students aged 21 were the least likely to provide care; just under 3% of this age group indicated that they provided care. It is difficult to ascertain whether this is due to student carers giving up their degree, or giving up their caring roles (Scottish Government, 2015, p. 21). It may be that it is harder for students nearing the end of their studies and planning toward employment to balance caring responsibilities.

We know that despite many young people having intensive caregiving duties, many young carers choose to study at college or university (Sempik & Becker, 2014, p. 2). Indeed, higher or further education may be an attractive option for many young carers because often colleges and universities offer a more flexible lifestyle compared to employment ( NUS, 2013, p. 30). However, caring roles do impact upon young people's choice of university based on geography and proximity to their home (Hamilton & Adamson, 2013, p. 108). Particularly in rural areas, it seems likely that caring responsibilities will often constrain young people in terms of making the decision to go to university or not, and will also limit their options with regard to which course they could choose. location and mode of study. Existing support networks also influenced decisions about where to study.

The NUS (2013, p. 1) found that female carers are less likely to enter education compared to male carers of the same age group (age 16-24). This perhaps corresponds with the finding that girls are more involved in caring tasks, particularly as they grow older. Financial considerations are also important, young carers in Scottish focus groups expressed frustration that they lost their Carer's Allowance payments if they entered full time education (The Scottish Youth Parliament, 2014).

Studies suggest that the course that young carers choose is often influenced by their caregiving identities (Hamilton & Adamson, 2013, p. 108; NUS, 2013). Some have found that a large number of young carers went on to study nursing, due to their skills deriving from their caregiving background (Kirkton, et al., 2012, p. 645). The NUS (2013) found that students carers were interested in becoming better carers or in using their caring experiences to their advantage in the world of work.

Research shows that there are many challenges for young carers at college and university. Sempik and Becker (2014) looked at the experiences of young adult carers in school, further and higher education, and employment. They received 295 survey responses from young adult carers aged 14-25. In relation to young carers who were students in further and higher education, they received 101 responses, which gave considerable insight into their experiences and aspirations. Sempik and Becker's (2014, p. 3) found that 56% of young carers in the sample said that they were 'experiencing difficulties because of their caring role,' and 16% were thinking about dropping out of college or university.

In the study carried out by Hamilton & Adamson (2013, p. 107) they found that for the participants balancing further education with their care tasks was a challenge due to: increased workload, set timetables, the logistics of working out transport and also for some, finding the time to balance part-time work, caring and study.

Lack of time is a significant issue that impacts upon student carers' lives (Kirkton, et al., 2012, p. 643); and therefore can contribute towards associated difficulties such as tiredness, missed deadlines, time for studying, lateness and absence ( NUS, 2013, p. 18). Indeed, the NUS (2013, p. 18) study found that only 36% of student carers in the sample felt able to balance their commitments, compared to 53% of students who did not have caring responsibilities. This could have very damaging consequences for students with caring responsibilities if they face penalties due to the difficulties experienced affecting academic performance (Kirkton, et al., 2012, p. 643). The Scottish Youth Parliament (2014, p. 21) survey found that 89% of young carers surveyed struggled to fit everything into their schedule. This was a much higher percentage than young carers in school (53%). In addition half of young carers in the Sempik & Becker (2014, p. 3) study reported having a mental health problem. In an NUS (2013, p. 29) study 15% reported mental health problems. Furthermore, 39% gave their physical health a rating of 'just ok' or 'poor.

Financial concerns were also an issue. The NUS (2013) found that student carers were less likely to receive a student loans and twice as likely to have sought discretionary funding. Student carers were also more likely to receive state benefits (possible due to the prevalence of mature students in the sample). Full time students are the only group who cannot receive carers allowance even when they meet other conditions. However research has identified no reduction in the amount of caring undertaken by full time students. NUS also found that student carers were more likely to take on high risk debt and less likely to take on low risk debt. It is suggested that this could be partly explained by lack of access to accurate information about debt and finances. Many student carers are accessing both student support and state benefits and the complexity of managing these often requires specialist financial advice. For the majority of student carers combining work, studying and caring the most common reason for working was to cover basic household costs. They were less likely to work for extras for themselves. In Scotland young adult carers stated the difficulties in funding travel to college or university and back home (Scottish Youth Parliament, 2014). Some had found that the transport costs were greater than the cost of staying in student accommodation.

When the participants in the NUS study were asked about whether being a student brought positive or negative impacts for their caring, two thirds of those who felt their caring had been impacted reported that there had been a negative impact; whereas for one third of participants it was positive. This was due to having more flexibility to care and studying gave them a mental and physical break from their caring duties ( NUS, 2013, p. 30).

4.3 Employment

For young adult carers, the Census provides data on their employment and education status. Overall, just over half of young adult carers are in full or part time employment.

Figure 14: % of young adult carers, by employment status
Figure 14: % of young adult carers, by employment status

As Figure 15 shows, employment status does vary by the hours of care provided. Those providing over 35 hours per week of care are more likely to be economically inactive and looking after the home or family.

Figure 15: Young adult carers (aged 16 to 24), by employment status and hours of care
Figure 15: Young adult carers (aged 16 to 24), by employment status and hours of care

As discussed above young carers may be more likely to experience problems at school and have lower educational attainment compared to their peers (Children's Society, 2013, p. 5). This will have a long term impact upon young carers' employment outcomes. Some young adult carers may feel constrained in their employment choices and aspirations due to their caring responsibilities. Becker and Becker (2008, p.43) found that young carers may be drawn to local jobs rather than necessarily the jobs which are best for them. One participant in the Hamilton and Adamson (2013, p.109) study commented that:

"I'll hopefully finish my degree this year but if I don't… full time work is not really possible, so I'm happy just to get something which is a really mediocre pushover easy job which just pays enough to cover the costs. That's what I'm aiming for the next few years."

The Children's Society (2013, p. 5) found that young carers are more likely than the national average to be not in education, employment or training between the ages of 16 and 19. In the study by Hamilton and Adamson (2013:108), young adult carers discussed the difficulties of combining employment and their caring duties, mostly relating to the need for a 'good employer' and the necessity for work to be flexible to their needs. Flexible work arrangements, and empathy from employers were stated to be crucial.


Young carers can face challenges in balancing their caring responsibilities with education and employment requirements and opportunities. It is possible that young carers may be more likely to experience problems at school and have lower attainment although this will not apply to all young carers. Schools therefore have an important role in helping to support young carers. Caring responsibilities may influence education and employment choices and flexibility is an important factor in enabling young carers to balance different commitments. The negative impact of combining caring and education may have potentially significant enduring consequences for workforce participation, and geographic and social mobility, with the risk of compounding deprivation and inequalities.


Email: Alix Rosenberg

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