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New RCN chief ‘frustrated’ by those who look to nursing past


Nursing should stop looking backwards and embrace the future as a degree-only entry profession, according to the new chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

In her first interview with Nursing Times since taking over from Peter Carter at the start of August, Janet Davies identified some people’s tendency to consider previous generations of nursing as superior was one the main challenges facing the profession.

“One of the things that frustrates me most is we always tend to look backwards,” she said.

“It is such a negative thing to be doing because we are now in the 21st century and we should be looking forward.  The solutions to the future will be very different than the solutions to the past.”

“One of the things that frustrates me most is we always tend to look backwards”

Janet Davies

She noted that it was a trait that seemed to be largely unique to nursing. “We don’t see other professions doing the same thing,” she said.

“You wouldn’t see an architect going back to wattle and daub to make a skyscraper and yet we seem to think things that were happening in the past were always the best – they were right for the time maybe but we need to look to the future.”

Asked why she thought this was, Ms Davies said she thought some nurses were possibly a “little bit defensive” about their own training and the period they joined the profession.

But said: “We are now an all-graduate profession. We’ve worked for this for many years and we should be really proud of it, and I get very frustrated when I hear people saying consistently why do you need a degree to be a nurse – it’s pretty obvious to me.”

She highlighted that healthcare was more complex than it had ever been and that graduate training gave nurses the ability and confidence to “challenge” care decisions.

“The biggest thing for me is challenge,” she said. “In the ‘olden days’, when I trained, we did things because it was the thing to do, we didn’t use evidence as much as we do now.”

Ms Davies suggested the public did not always appreciate “what a nursing degree is actually”.

“One of my key personal aims is that we get the nursing profession working together”

Janet Davies

“It’s really interesting that we get letters here quite often from patients or retired nurses who are concerned that nurses have to have a degree,” she said.

“What seems to be the misnomer on this is that they believe people have to have a degree before they start nursing, they don’t appreciate that actually it’s at the need of your training you are awarded a degree,” she said.

She added: “The big thing really is how we enable people – with the skills, talent and the attribute to make fantastic nurses – to access that degree programme.”

Asked by Nursing Times what the most immediate issues on her agenda were, Ms Davies highlighted building the college’s relationships.

“One of my key personal aims is that we get the nursing profession working together,” she said. “We can be fractured at times and I think we’re all in this together and we need to support each other very strongly.”

She noted that this was necessary to strengthen leadership within the profession.

“There is a need for very strong leadership in nursing and I think the college has a role to play in ensuring that is the case… that is one of my first key aims,” she said.

Ms Davies added that the issue of safe staffing “remains key”. “We know that demand for healthcare is continuing to increase and yet we know that staffing levels still aren’t right and we’re struggling with that. But it really is about getting a sensible long-term view,” she said.

She also cited the need to improve how nursing was valued, both in terms of pay and also how it was generally perceived. “It’s not only in pay – but that is obviously significant – but it’s also about how do we value what nurses do,” she said.

“We know that demand for healthcare is continuing to increase and yet we know that staffing levels still aren’t right”

Janet Davies

Achieving these aims was part of the college’s role both as a professional body and also a trade union, she said, acknowledging that it was a balancing act between the two functions of the organisation. 

Asked if that balance was right at the moment, Ms Davies said: “It depends on how you look at it.

“One of the fascinating things I heard when I got the job was people who are very interested in our professional work sometimes believe that our trade union voice is louder and then I also hear from people who think… that maybe our professional voice is louder,” she said.

“It’s very subjective,” she said. “One of the roles I have is to make sure we do balance that really carefully.”

However, she admitted that questions over the structure of the RCN were likely to remain, following the suggestions made in the Francis report that the college should split into a separate union and professional body.

“We will always have that discussion,” she said. We’ve got to make sure we meet everybody’s needs.

“We do have to have a very strong professional voice, we have to be seen as an active royal college…but in the same level we do have to support our nurses [through our union work] to enable that to happen,” she added.


Janet Davies: quick facts

  • Became RCN chief executive and general secretary in August 2015
  • Was previously RCN executive director or nursing and service delivery for nine years
  • Before joining the RCN she was chief executive of Mersey Regional Ambulance Service NHS Trust
  • She began her nursing career in Manchester

Are nurses “a little bit defensive” about their own training?

Let us know what you think of Janet’s comments in the section below or in our LIVE Twitter debate on Wednesday 19th August at 1pm GMT.

To join the chat, search for #NTtwitchat and use this hashtag in all your tweets that you’d like the rest of the chat participants to see.



Readers' comments (61)

  • Why doesn't she concentrate her efforts on securing better pay -that I'm sure is a top priority for a lot of nurses-degrees don't pay the bills

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  • I couldn't agree more that we need to look forward.
    It often surprises me when I hear about the 'good old days' of a 2nd year student nurse being in-charge of a ward on nights, like a badge of honour.
    I'm glad we've moved on from that and now take time to academically as well as technically prepare the nurses of the future. They'll be looking after me when I'm old and I want them to be well prepared for delivering healthcare in the future.

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  • That's all well and good but she should not denigrate those of us who trained years ago as we are still very good nurses in acute areas of healthcare. I may not have trained when you do it as a degree, but I did my specialist course at diploma level and completed the diploma afterwards.

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  • I agree we must look to the future but also acknowledge the wealth of knowledge our ageing workforce holds. I do have a major issue with the ability of some previously Enrolled Nurses who failed to do the conversion course but now happily call themselves Registered Nurses!! Some even Sister. How is this allowed to happen? We want recognition as a graduate profession but we allow this to continue.

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  • Interesting and I quote "the need to improve how nursing was valued, both in terms of pay and also how it was generally perceived. “It’s not only in pay – but that is obviously significant – but it’s also about how do we value what nurses do,” she said."

    Well well, she obviously doesn't understand the RCN aim about the art AND science of nursing - so that means what nurses KNOW not just what they do.
    As an educator and meeting the new nurses looking after my family members I am astounded at the little that they know - despite a degree. I should say that these are nurses who did not learn under my tutorship. We need to concentrate much much more on a better, deeper, and broader wealth of knowledge and how that is applied - so much more emphasis on more practice hours. The degree is great as long as the curriculum is fit for purpose and at present it is not. If it was and nurse educators were looking forward then we would only have a general nurse and specialise after qualification. Neither would we have learning disability nurses - only social workers.

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  • Well we look backwards because patients were actually NURSED! Has she been on a ward lately and seen the dirty teeth,nails,missing obs,full water jugs for pts who should be drinking? She needs to step out of that ridiculous red dress,put on a uniform and pay a visit to a ward and then she might know why we sometimes look back!

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  • Of course we need to look forward but we shouldn't right off or forget the good of the past either. I do have serious concerns about the quality of some of these degree courses and the relatively low entry requirements of some. I think that nursing is one of the few degrees one can study on the back of just two A levels. Not only do many seem to come out of university lacking experience and the ability to give good (old) basic nursing care but also have not had the thorough theoretical base or ability that goes with studying at degree level. A lot depends on the caliber of the institution. I speak as a nurse who qualified in 1980, has continually studied throughout my nursing career, including completing a BSc in nursing practice (child health).

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  • ..that should off course read 'write off'! Oops!

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  • The RCN shouldn't portray itself as a union. Anyone who joins will have a nasty shock about support offered. I had experience of a rep in Manchester who seemed to be treating my difficult meeting as a job interview for her post in H.R. I joined Unison after that :0)

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