Posted: 09 July 2014

Talking about young carers with Oritsé Williams

My job takes me to many interesting places, where I meet all manner of people. But I never imagined I'd find myself sharing a cup of tea on a chilly evening with a famous pop star while he told me about his childhood and his relationship with his mum.

But that's exactly what happened when I took part in the making of Channel 4's Britain's Youngest Carers - a special documentary that airs tonight fronted by Oritsé Williams, founder member of hit band JLS. 

Most people know Oritsé as a successful vocalist and dancer, but his glamorous lifestyle had humble beginnings. When he was just 12 years old, he became a carer to his mum, who had become disabled by multiple sclerosis. In fact, Oritsé is quite clear about what motivated him to find success.

He told me: 'I needed to be successful and make money, because I needed to make sure my mum got the care she needed'.

Documentary reveals lives of this quiet army of young carers

But he's adamant that he wouldn't have had it any other way, and makes it clear that caring, even at such an early age, is something that he did out of love and dedication to his family. It's obviously something he's immensely proud of - his eyes lit up as he described his relationship with his much-loved mum. 

It's a story that's very familiar to me. We have worked with young carers for more than 15 years. Although Oritsé's fame, fortune and undeniable talent are rare and unusual, his experience of being a child carer – and becoming wise beyond his years – is something he shares with hundreds of thousands of others. Oritsé knew that there were others like him, and his documentary investigates the lives of this quiet army of dedicated children - to acknowledge their undeniable achievements and to understand the huge challenges they face. 

Young carers often need support, are as young as five

Unfortunately many young carers don't get the support they need to help them keep their own lives on track while caring for a loved one. The Children's Society has published leading research that shows that when a child is spending 20, 30 or even 40 hours a week caring for someone at home without support, it can take its toll on their health, their education and their ability to enjoy friendships.

As part of his documentary, Oritsé met me to talk about our work here at The Children's Society to support young carers, and find out more about some of the problems they face.

There's no doubt that caring for a parent or sibling in childhood can bring a family closer together, but sometimes the burden of responsibility can become too great. Too often we see children as young as five or six taking up the slack when a disabled family member isn't getting the care services they need.

Children can become tired and ill, miss days of school, fall being with homework and get cut off from their friends. In some cases we see teenagers falling behind in exams and losing eight or nine grades at GCSE, meaning they struggle to find work. When this happens it comes at a great cost to them - and to the whole of society. 

Improving young carers' lives

In some ways, we've come a long way since Oritsé first became a child carer himself back in 1998. I explained to Oritsé that there is some good news for some of Britain's most hard-pressed young carers.

New legislation that comes into effect next year will change the way councils have to care assessments about care services - if it's put into practice it should see more disabled people getting the right care so that children don't shoulder the burden alone, and it must also make sure that young carers get support for themselves too. If not, we could see another generation of heroic caring children losing out on opportunities – that would come and at a great cost to them, and to the whole of society.

We’ll keep a close eye out to make sure that the change in law turns into a change in practice on the ground.

Watch Oritsé's documentary, Britain's Youngest Carers

Oritsé's documentary, Britain's Youngest Carers, airs at 9pm on Channel 4 tonight, 9 July. It will be made available online on the Channel 4 website.

By Lily Caprani - Policy team

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