There has been a dramatic fall in the number of student nurses dropping out of courses, figures obtained by Nursing Times show.
The ‘attrition rate’ of first year nursing students in 2010-11 fell to nearly a third of what it was the previous year, with 1.6% quitting in comparison to 4.5% in 2009-10.
Universities have put this success down to better screening of candidates and improved support for students, including counselling and financial advice.
High drop-out rates have been a problem over the last decade with more than a quarter of students starting a course in 2006-07 failing to complete their studies.
The highest attrition rates are recorded for the first two years of nursing courses, with many failing to return after the holidays.
But the most recent figures collected by the Department of Health, released to Nursing Times, show the total number of people who dropped out by the second year falling by a third, from 12.4% of the 2008-09 intake to 8.3% of those who started in 2009-10.
The Royal College of Nursing’s student and acting education advisor Gill Robertson said universities had significantly improved their support of students.
“There will and always should be a bit of attrition in nursing courses. There will be some people who get out there and realise it’s not for them,” she said.
“But in many universities there has been an emphasis on how to lessen attrition, whether it’s more academic support and tutorials or pastoral care of students.”
Students have sometimes found it difficult to contact their tutors when out on placements - but universities have started to address this issue.
Ms Robertson pointed out that a rule change allowing students to continue their studies after returning from maternity leave might have helped improve the attrition rate.
She cited Glamorgan, Huddersfield and Liverpool John Moores as universities with particularly good pastoral care.
The training of nurses in each region of England is the responsibility of the strategic health authority that monitors the performance of universities and allocates funding.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Strategic health authorities have been working with education institutions to reduce attrition from training programmes by improving the quality of education and training for health professionals.”
The Council of Deans for Health, which represents universities providing nurse training, said nursing students were subject to a higher level of scrutiny than other students.
A spokesman said: “Unlike [students in] many university subject disciplines, health professional students are normally subject to several stages of screening of their application forms and via interview in order to assess suitability for their course and chosen career. Equally, during their period of study students will receive both professional, academic, teaching and learning support, pastoral support and practical support via financial advice and counselling.”
Because of the length of courses the total number who drop out from any one year’s in-take is not known until five years later.
The data for this shows the total percentage of drop-outs for the courses starting in 2005-06 and and 2006-07 as 18% and 26% respectively – although most of these students will have left in the first two years.
The DH figures do not include those for London, which is a large trainer of nurses. NHS London is dropping nearly a quarter of the adult nursing courses it funds this year, with total student numbers falling to 1,580 (news page 4, 6 September).
NHS London said it would also look to reduce the number of universities it would fund places at in the capital.