School nursing vision needs huge growth in workforce, says union

An extra 2,500 school nurses are needed if the government's proposals to widen the reach of services are to succeed, child health professionals have claimed.

The Department of Health (DoH) is developing a new "vision" for school nursing, which is due to be published by the end of the year.

According to DoH drafts of the plans, school nurses will lead the Healthy Child Programme for all five- to 19-year-olds and manage support for children with complex needs, including advice and training for families, carers and school staff.

They will also be charged with providing early intervention for families with multiple needs, reducing obesity and drug and alcohol use and offering sexual health advice to young people, among a range of responsibilities.

Rosalind Godson, professional officer at the union Unite, which represents school nurses, said that a massive investment in the workforce is vital. She argued that every secondary school should employ one full-time school nurse, while caseloads should be capped at 1,200 children.

"There are 3,500 secondary schools in England, but there are 1,104 full-time equivalent qualified school nurses, so ideally we need an extra 2,500 school nurses," she explained.

"Last year, there were 211 training commissions for school nurses and this year there were 206. Plainly, that is nowhere near enough, so we want to increase the numbers getting trained."

According to Godson, the DoH is not planning to commit to training a specific number of school nurses – as it has with health visitors. But she argued that a target and a commitment to employ more school nurses is necessary.

"We’d be happy if they trained 500 a year instead of 200 as a start," she said. "They actually need to train an extra 1,000 school nurses a year for the next three years. That would be our target, but we recognise that equates to four times the amount that are trained now."

CYP Now reported in June that school nurses fear their colleagues were being "poached" to work as health visitors, as primary care trusts struggle to meet the government target to recruit an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015.

Sharon White, professional officer at the School and Public Health Nurses Association, argued that the government’s school nursing development programme will boost the profession and lead to a growth in the workforce, but admitted that some school nurses have been tempted away from the job by the promise of guaranteed work in health visiting.

"Because there has been that commitment to employing an extra 4,200 health visitors, some school nurses who have felt that their jobs are under threat in the current climate of cuts, have opted to move to health visiting because of the security that affords them," she said.

Anna Martinez, head of the Sex Education Forum at the National Children’s Bureau, argued that all young people need somebody they can talk to about health issues at school.

"School nurses are an extremely important resource, particularly for teaching children about health issues," she said. "But it’s impossible for them to do that health education if there aren’t enough of them. It would be great to see each school have their own nurse who would not only support them with immunisations and health checks, but also the wider health education."

Over the summer, the British Youth Council surveyed 1,600 11- to 18-year-olds in partnership with the DoH. They asked how advice, care and treatment could be improved and what school nurses should do to help keep young people healthy.

Public health minister Anne Milton said the responses are influencing government plans. "School nurses are the first line of defence for children and young people," she said. "Young people have told us that school nurses need to be visible, accessible and confidential".

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