An increasing number of carers are missing out on opportunities for learning and work because of their caring responsibilities, it has emerged.
More than five million carers are of working age, and 290,000 are between the ages of 16 and 24. A large majority of carers wishing to gain further qualifications by returning to education can find the barriers are overwhelming, and even access to recreational study is limited.
The National Extension College (NEC), a not-for-profit organisation set up 40 years ago to help people of all ages fit learning into their lives, has highlighted the challenge following an innovative three-year project. The project, Carers into Education, was led by charity The Princess Trust for Carers and funded by the Big Lottery fund.
The NEC’s Dr Mary Edmunds commented: "Many carers are precluded from education primarily because they are unable to attend formal courses due to their caring responsibilities or because the cost of such courses is beyond their means. The Carers into Education project recognises that although subsidised fees permit many carers to engage in vocational courses or recreational learning, further flexibility must be offered for carers to be able to study at a pace and in a way that will fit with their caring needs.
"However, vocational study is not always appropriate as a starting point. Carers may have spent many years out of the education or work environment and can lack confidence in their abilities. That is why a lot of carers choose initially to return to study through a recreational course such as creative writing.
"The Carers into Education project has shown that such recreational courses have enabled carers to re-build their confidence and allowed them to develop personal skills often based on their caring experience. One real benefit of this scheme is the support each student gains though the mentoring programme, which is designed around the carer’s needs and responsibilities. This means that the student is supported throughout their learning programme in a way that is accessible, flexible and personal to their needs. Another benefit is that this scheme provides subsidised learning."
The findings will be launched next week (March 19) at the one-day conference: ‘Carers’ Learning Needs – What Next?’ The conference will underline the need for flexibility to help carers access learning because of their responsibilities and limitations. It will also unveil a report on the Learning and Skills Council’s (LSC) funded research project into carer’s education needs recently carried out by The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and NEC.
Jane Burt, from The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, added: "A number of our network carers’ centres have been involved in the project and can see the results for the carers they support. There is real potential for carers across the UK to benefit from distance learning and we have been particularly pleased to see the development of a unique Creative Writing Course for carers that can be delivered by our centres as a result of the project.
"The project has come at an ideal time when the need for carers to have a life outside of caring has been recognised by government through the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I am also pleased that the government sponsored programme of training for carers, ‘Caring with Confidence’, announced in the Departments of Health’s White Paper ‘Our Health, Our Care, Our Say’, is going to be offered by distance learning. This recognises the need for flexibility that has been demonstrated through this project.
"The Princess Royal Trust for Carers is delighted to have worked with the National Extension College on this Big Lottery-funded partnership."