Mature students in England will in future be offered £5,000 to embark on a career in mental health or learning disability nursing in a new bid to tackle shortages, under plans expected to be revealed early next year.
The proposals will be included in the upcoming NHS long term plan, which was due to be published in December but has been delayed until next year, according to The Guardian.
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A source is reported to have told the newspaper that the payments will be called “earn and learn support premiums”, and are intended to boost recruitment in these areas.
When approached by Nursing Times, both NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care said the information had not come from them and declined to confirm or deny the claims.
Figures show applications to study nursing have fallen by 32% since the government scrapped student bursaries in 2016.
“A total support package of £5,000 would not fully reflect the difficulties student nurses face”
The funding reform has hit mature students hardest, with a 40% drop in applicants aged 25 and over during the same time period.
The fields of mental health and learning disability nurses have traditionally relied on older people who go into the career because they have had personal experience in these areas.
The recruitment issues have led to almost half of universities with pre-registration learning disability nursing courses to consider terminating their programmes.
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At the same time, latest workforce statistics from August 2018 show the number of learning disability nurses working in the NHS in England has plummeted by 42% since records began in September 2009. Mental health nurses have declined by 13%.
Nursing leaders questioned whether the new premium plans were replacing those announced by the government in May to offer £10,000 “golden hellos” to postgraduate students studying district, mental health or learning disability nursing.
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However, the Department of Health and Social Care told Nursing Times that it was still committed to delivering the golden hellos.
The department confirmed that the £10,000 payments would be made when a postgraduate student who started a loan-funded course in the 2018-19 academic year took up employment in either learning disability, mental health or district nursing.
“This is a small step in the right direction”
The earliest these payments would start would be September 2020 because education programmes were generally two years, it added.
Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, said the new proposal, if accurate, was unlikely to solve the current recruitment problems.
He added: “A total support package of £5,000 would not fully reflect the difficulties student nurses face in supplementing their student finances across their intensive nursing studies.
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“An annual £5,000 grant would go further in helping these students but would do nothing to help recruit to adult nursing or to support younger nursing students,” he said Professor Webster-Henderson.
“There is a real risk that piecemeal solutions like this create unintended consequences by encouraging students to delay study or diverting students from adult nursing or other healthcare careers,” he said.
Professor Webster-Henderson said the council would urge the government to reconsider the proposals in order to support recruitment to all parts of the nursing workforce and healthcare professions.
Dame Professor Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “With nursing student numbers falling and the number of unfilled nurse jobs projected to rise as high as 48,000 in the next five years, the situation is desperate.
Dame Donna Kinnair
“This is a small step in the right direction, but this kind of policy would benefit only a very limited group of people,” she added.
“If the government and NHS England want to attract more people to study nursing, and begin to tackle the increasingly dangerous shortfall in nurse numbers, we need more than tinkering,” Dame Donna said.
She said the RCN was calling for at least an additional £1bn a year to invested in nurse education to “arrest the decline in student numbers and secure the future of safe patient care”.