Poor maths and English barring ‘thousands’ from nursing career

Professor Ian Cumming told delegates at the chief nursing officer for England’s summit yesterday that this problem was proving to be one of the biggest “stumbling blocks” to making the workforce more representative of the population it served.

“The variations are absolutely immense”

Ian Cumming

He said: “We have had to turn away a large number of people, I’m talking thousands of people, who wanted to access training to become a nursing associate but they didn’t have the basic numeracy or literacy that was required.”

His comments about the new nursing associate role echo points made earlier this year regarding access to registered nurse education.

Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, which represents faculties of nursing in the UK, told Nursing Times the “biggest challenge” for universities in recruiting undergraduate nurses was around applicants not having adequate levels of maths and English.

To help widen access to nursing education, HEE was looking to work with “staff-side colleagues” to “put an offer there around numeracy and literacy”, Professor Cumming told the audience of senior nurses.

During the summit, he also highlighted an “immense” regional variation in undergraduate student nurse figures around England – with the north outstripping the south.

“We have seen quite a significant growth in undergraduate nurses in the north of the country and we have seen a lack of growth in nursing students in the south of the country,” Professor Cumming told delegates at the conference in Birmingham. 

He said in order to address this, best practice needed to be shared equally around all corners of England instead of happening in “silos”.

“The variations are absolutely immense and I firmly believe that if we can take this best practice, if we can encourage people to adopt this best practice, then that will get us a long way down the line to solving these real challenges we have at the moment,” he said.

In addition, Professor Cumming demonstrated the extent to which nursing numbers were struggling to keep up with increases in patient demand.

He said the level of patient interaction with clinicians in England’s NHS had more than doubled since 2005, from one million patients every 36 hours to one million every 17 hours.

“The average age of an undergraduate nursing student at university now is significantly lower”

Ian Cumming 

To keep up with this growth, the workforce needed to increase by 3% every year but nurse numbers were only rising by 0.9%, Professor Cummings said. He said there was a need to “grow all the routes” into registered nursing in this country.

However, head of HEE said that, in order to plug the immediate gaps, focus needed to be placed on retention, international nurse recruitment and return to practice.

During the session, Professor Cumming was also quizzed on the removal of the student nurse bursary. He admitted that the funding reforms had “definitely” had an impact on mature student recruitment. 

“Clearly if you look at the data the average age of an undergraduate nursing student at university now is significantly lower than it was when we had the bursary and when we had tuition fees funded,” he said. “So, it has definitely had an impact of mature entrants into nursing degrees.”

However, Professor Cumming highlighted how mature students were instead deciding to go down the nursing associate apprenticeship route into registered nursing.

“What we are seeing, however, is the route from trainee nursing associate to registered nursing associate and from nursing associate to registered nurse that is now on offer is attracting a much more mature group of people,” he said.

“So what seems to be happened is the 18-year-olds leaving school passionate about a career in nursing are accessing the undergraduate route and the people who would find it much harder to be able to give up work because they have financial commitments, children, mortgage, rent to pay etc are looking at alternative routes,” he added. 

He stressed that this was why it was ”really important” to keep pushing for the nursing associates to be a viable route to become a registered nurse as well as being a career in its own right. 

It was revealed at the CNO Summit that HEE had committed £42m for 2019-20 to create a 50% growth in nursing associate recruitment and support those in training.