“You’re not alone” was the heartfelt refrain repeated in the closing scene of Who Cares, performed at the Lowry Theatre in Salford. The play’s takeaway message was meant for the multitude of child carers across the UK that have responsibilities thrust on them that no child should have to bear alone.
Often unacknowledged by the authorities, and with no financial help, these children take on the role of becoming the primary carer for family members laid low by life-changing events that have left them unable to care for themselves or their family.
The life stories of three young carers, catapulted into an overwhelming cycle of responsibility by events beyond their control, felt all the more poignant due to this being a “verbatim” play, constructed from 200 hours of interviews with young carers from Salford, alongside testimony from their families and schoolteachers.
I spoke to playwright Matt Woodhead of the LUNG theatre company before the show. He explained that the process of documenting the lives of the young carers, despite the often harrowing experiences they had to tell, had been “incredibly joyful” and a collaborative creative process, involving the young carers committing a considerable amount of time over two years to record their stories and input into the creative design of the production. The “young carers have been amazing, and it’s been as life-changing for me as I hope that it has been for them.”
Who Cares recounts the lives of three young carers Nicole, Jade and Connor and the struggles they face coping with the caring commitments thrust upon them. The performance is fast paced, with the carers taking turns to recount episodes from their lives. The breaks between scenes are kept lively with music playing (playlist picked by young carers) and lights flashing as the carers attend to their school lockers at the back of the set and don jumpers or coats for the next scene.
Caring responsibilities start for Nicole when she is just four years old. Her mother has a stroke after dropping Nicole off at the school gates, leaving her paralysed down one side. Nicole recounts helping nurse her mother back to being able to walk and talk again, and later the devastating effect a cut to her still severely disabled mother’s social security payments has on them. The stress caused by the social security net being pulled out from under them results in a heart-breaking scene between Nicole and her mother that no family should have to endure.
“Austerity is savaging young carers in Salford. The budget for Children’s Services in this city has been cut by £6 million. Housing benefit sanctions, healthcare – they’re all at breaking point. We now refer children and their families to foodbanks at a rate I’ve never seen.Paul – character in Who Cares working for Salford Carers Service
“At the Carers Service everyone on my team should expect a case load of around twenty. Instead everyone is on a case load of at least fifty-five. But still the message from Central Government is that our service should be cut, cut, cut.”
Matt wrote the play in 2016, a time when “austerity was starting to bite,” he says. “When you look at the impact that austerity is having on young carers I feel like the health inequalities of young carers in Salford compared to young carers in more affluent boroughs in the UK is also something that needs to be addressed.”
Nicole’s behaviour at high school goes downhill, she gets into fights at school and is on her “thirteenth social worker”, but no one is asking why she is behaving like this, and she finds her care responsibilities “hard to explain.”
Despite there being legislation obliging all local authorities to provide a young carers service to help these children, many struggle on without being recognised as carers by the authorities. As Who Cares conveys, these children often find it difficult to talk about their caring responsibilities due to the stigma and the perceived shame involved, and they are often unaware that there is help out there for them.
Caring during Covid
The last census in 2011 identified 166,000 young carers in England, but an Investigation by the BBC in 2018 estimated that there were more than 800,000 secondary school age children carrying out some level of care, across England.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on them with a survey in 2020 by the Carers Trust showing that 11% of young carers reporting an increase of 30 hours or more in the amount of time they spend caring per week, with 8% reporting they were now spending over 90 hours per week caring for a family member. Fifty six percent reported their education was suffering and 40% said their mental health had deteriorated.
The effect of the pandemic on young carers was a major driver for Matt and the Who Cares team to bring the show out on another tour. The play was first performed in 2016 at the Lowry, and since then has performed at many schools and theatres across the country, and even graced the House of Lords in 2017 to an audience of MPs and policy makers.
During the pandemic a lot of the tools used to identify hidden carers haven’t been as effective, due to children not going into school or engaging with GP or health agencies, Matt explains:
“So there’s been a huge need to identify more hidden young carers… we wanted to bring it back one final time to identify all of those hidden young carers that have either become carers because of Covid or become carers during the pandemic… the thing that’s really impactful about the show as a vehicle for social change is 200 young carers, unidentified young carers, have seen the play then directly indentified as a result of seeing the show.”
The play was created in partnership with The Lowry and the Salford Carers Service, part of the charity Gaddum, which has been offering support to people across the Greater Manchester region since 1833. After the show I spoke to Sam Palmer the head of development and innovation at Gaddum, who has worked closely with Matt to promote the Who Cares play, and the associated campaign to improve the lives of young carers.
Sam describes the pandemic lockdown periods as “challenging” where there was “definitely a spike in young carers” seeking help from the service. He went on to say:
“What we found at the beginning is, young carers were suddenly trapped at home. They were getting no respite and no break.
“A lot of them were really struggling in terms of not having that opportunity to get out of the house, not even being able to go to school. So there’s been a massive impact on young people’s mental health… and then there was the whole challenge around digital inclusion.”
The Young Carers Service in Salford found that many of the carers using their services were struggling to do school homework or to connect with their friends during lockdown due to lack of electronic goods and Internet connection. Sam helped raise money to buy laptops, tablets and arranged deals with Vodaphone to provide wi-fi dongles and mobile phones to some young carers during the lockdowns.
The digital equipment also helped the young carers access the meetings and events Gaddum regularly hold for young carers, which had been moved online during the lockdowns. These events have now gone mainly back to face to face meetings. Sam says that:
“Just having the opportunity for a young person to meet other young carers and to kind of have a break from the caring role and to do some fun activities, that has a massive impact. And we see that all the time and we see their confidence build, we see their self-esteem build, we see them create friends with peers. And that is so valuable.”
Sam believes that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a young carer is, and he often encounters people assuming it’s a care leaver or some kind of paid role. So educating the wider public on what a young carer is and how they can be helped is an important issue for him which was driven home by the revelations he experienced when starting working for Gaddum:
“I didn’t know what a young carer was until I started working for Gaddum and from speaking to our young people and hearing from managers and being part of carer services, I suddenly had that realisation that hang on a second – this was my childhood.
“So then it became very much a personal passion and agenda for me, and I saw the value of providing support and respite and opportunities for these young people. “That was something that I definitely never had. And it was very much hidden, People knew you were caring, but no one talked about it, no one offered support. I was never identified by like school teachers or GPs or police.”
Theatre of change
Unsurprisingly Matt is critical of national government’s lack of action and support for young carers across the country, he raises the new Health and Care Bill, which doesn’t mention young carers at all. The bill fails to acknowledge the important and valuable work young carers do, Matt says:
“Young carers save the government millions of pounds a year in the unpaid caring that they do. If all young carers in Salford or in the UK decided they didn’t want to care anymore, they weren’t going to do it, the NHS would be overwhelmed and overrun the next day because of the amount of support young carers provide.”
A primary drive for Matt’s creation of this play, and his ongoing commitment to support it, is his conviction that this production can lead to change in our society and support from government that will lead to better lives for young carers. Matt is extremely proud of the young carers who have “borne their souls” telling their life stories to produce the powerful, emotionally charged and engaging play I saw on 16 November at The Lowry, but he says:
“There has to be an action with that, and that action has to be the identification of hidden young carers, training up professionals, advocating and lobbying for social change. In the five years that we’ve been doing this play we’ve seen that movement and that ground start to change, and we’re hoping that we can continue to do that.
“That’s why we’re continuing to bang the drum because I think once you’re eyes are opened to the plight of young carers in this country it’s hard to not unsee that and it’s hard not to act on that as well.”
There is no doubt those drumbeats have been heard as alongside Who Cares playing in the House of Lords, they also had an award winning performance run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, and the play was performed on BBC Radio Two this year reaching an audience of over 800,000.
The issues raised in Who Cares are also set to be discussed in Westminster again, this time in the House of Commons, due to the actions of Salford Labour MP Barabara Keeley who has invited the Who Cares Campaign to present their finding to an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on young carers.
The campaigners will present a series of policies and pledges to the APPG aimed at improving young carer services across Greater Manchester. One of those policies is the implementation of a “young carers passport” to be shown to authority figures such as pharmacists or GPs who, as Who Cares demonstrates, are often turning carers away when they try to pick up prescriptions or attend a doctor’s appointment with their mum or dad.
Another cause for concern raised by both Matt and Sam is the postcode lottery of services offered to young carers. Sam says “young people can live in one part of Great Manchester and get service and then move to another part and get nothing…so there definitely needs to be more of a unified offer for people, not just in Greater Manchester but across the UK.”
Matt and Sam also sing the praises of Salford Council’s support of young carers, despite the swingeing austerity cuts to Children’s Services, with Sam describing them as “amazing” and “one of the first local authorities to commission a specific young carers service.”
The show must go on?
The national tour of Who Cares finished this year in Liverpool in November. I asked Sam whether it had achieved what he hoped it would.
“Yeah, absolutely, and more. I don’t think anyone had expected it to have such a legacy and such an impact, and the fact that it’s still going six years later and there’s still demand for it. I think Matt thinks it might be at the end now, but I keep saying it’s too amazing to stop. I think it’s got so much more potential. I think the impact that it has, and the play itself is just incredible.
“Because you’ve got new young carers come in every day. So I think there’s a kind of a continuous need for it and… I would love to see it, kind of almost given out and for it to be developed in other areas. For it to be updated for new young carers to add their stories to it.”
The on-stage play has been filmed Sam informs me, and workshops have been developed around it, with additional resources and videos, that can be rolled out to schools so that they can be used in assemblies, lessons or training sessions. There has also been talk of Who Cares being filmed for TV, which Sam would love to see happen for its “even bigger reach.”
Matt said the tour had been “very emotional” and “It’s been incredible, like the shows had so many incarnations, it was only supposed to be on for a night in the Quays theatre back in 2016 and then there was so much energy that night when we did the show we were like, what should happen next?” The play has toured through sixteen cities this year, where Matt said free school matinees and workshops were provided at each venue, with free professional development training in the identification of hidden young carers provided for those needing it.
I asked Matt why did he care? “I think when you meet these young people, when you hear their stories, you can’t do anything but care. I’ve always been completely in awe of their tenacity.”
Who Cares Campaign – click here
Salford Carers’ Service – click here
LUNG theatre company – click here
This article is part of the Creating Radical Change series, to see more – click here
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Feature image: The Other Richard.