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NMC gives go-ahead to relaxed English test for overseas nurses


New plans to relax the English language test for international nurses and midwives applying to work in the UK have today been given the green light.

The move, mooted by the Nursing and Midwifery Council last week, will see the level required to pass the writing element of the International English Language Test (IELTS) lowered to 6.5 from 7.

However, successful applicants will still have to achieve a score of 7 in the reading, speaking and listening aspects of the exam, resulting in an overall result of 7. The highest mark is a 9.

Members of the council at the regulator approved the changes during a meeting at its London office today. The new test is due to come into effect next month.

Emma Broadbent, director of registration and revalidation, said many of those spoken to as part of a wide-ranging consultation believed the IELTS should be relaxed further.

“We need to continue to listen and talk to those people but also there is a wider question”

Emma Broadbent

However, Ms Broadbent said the NMC had been “rightly cautious” to begin with, but added that work on this agenda was continuing.

The reform of the IELTS is part of a wider programme by the regulator to review its overseas registration process.

Ms Broadbent said she wanted the NMC to start working closer with employers to help new overseas nurses and midwives further develop their communication skills once they started work in the UK.

She suggested this work could be linked with the revalidation or continuous professional development requirements.

Speaking to Nursing Times outside the council meeting, Ms Broadbent said: “There’s a lot of people who feel this won’t go far enough… and we need to continue to listen and talk to those people but also there is a wider question.

“This is what we are saying is the minimum standard for entry onto the register, then there’s the bit about how you grow your communication skills once you are in practice and that’s the bit where we really want to work with employers and others to think about that and think about how we support employers and others in that space,” she said.

“I think it’s something we need to look carefully at and keep monitoring in the future”

Anne Wright

Ms Broadbent said the NMC expected more overseas nurses and midwives to join the register as a result of the changes to the IELTS.

In papers that went before the council, it was noted that the writing aspect of the IELTS test did not reflect the needs of the “modern working environment for nurses and midwives”, because it required essay submissions and personal opinion whereas in reality they would only be expected to give “precise reporting of times and events”.

The NMC has also collected evidence that shows many applicants were achieving a 7 or above in the reading, speaking and listening elements but were “just missing the standard” for writing, with large numbers hitting 6.5.

Ms Broadbent insisted that the NMC was not planning to drop the overall score to 6.5, as had been called for by some stakeholders, but added: “We will continue to talk to people and listen to the evidence.”

She said the regulator would closely monitor the impact of the changes of the IELTS, including on whether more fitness to practise cases came forward involving language concerns. 

“I think a measured and cautious approach is the right approach”

Hugh Bayley

During the meeting, Geraldine Walters, director of education and standards, confirmed that the new language test would also apply to nursing associates.

The proposals were well-received among the council members.

Registrant member Ruth Walker stressed the change was not being made in order to tackle nurse shortages but rather as a response to what people were telling the NMC about problems with language test.

Lay member Sir Hugh Bayley said he had initially questioned the logic behind lowering the score for writing but not the other elements, but added that he was now convinced this was the right first step to take. He said: “I think a measured and cautious approach is the right approach.”

Anne Wright, also a lay member, added: “The written component of the IELTS isn’t quite appropriate at grade 7 for the particular tasks nurses and midwives need to undertake, they don’t need to right long essays when they are in practice.

“I do support it, but I think it’s something we need to look carefully at and keep monitoring in the future,” she said.

In November 2017, the NMC also began accepting the Occupational English Test (OET) as an alternative to IELTS as proof of language skills among overseas applicants to the UK register.


Readers' comments (11)

  • It’s hard to understand some of the overseas nurses already and your making it easier for them to pass the test! God help us.

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  • Also native English speaking from Australia and New Zealand struggle to pass IELTS score 7.
    I'm sure many mother tongue English colleagues would never pass even score 6 in IELTS.
    Unfortunately many people, as well in the top, don't know what score 7 or 6.5 is.
    God help us in our profession.

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  • It’s about time the NMC saw sense they were to strict but the English test should not be BS level that is over the top. My Daughter has failed 4 Times yet her English is her language it’s only because she trained as a Nurse in the Philippines
    and just to let the critics know nursing in the Philippines is taught in English ( more towards the USA) standards as it’s a much higher standard so American English is used which I think it’s better.
    Maybe now my daughter will pass the IELTS this time.

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  • I’m just please that the English speaking listening and understanding hast dropped. As I cannot understand some colleagues as it is, the patients really can’t understand some nurses. I agree that English development should come in after they have secured a post, that should be made compulsary, and improve standards. Even for doctors.

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  • Tom Bolger

    I have taught English as a second language to people from all walks of life including senior business executives and health professionals. IELTS is a tough measure which would challenge many native speakers. It is far too generic for use as a requirement for registration as a nurse.
    The Occupational English Language (OEL) test is much better. It is specifically designed for measuring the skills of health and veterinary professionals.
    I have to add that I think language skills should be the responsibility of the employer and the individual nurse not the NMC. Language skills should only be the business of the NMC if it contributes to bad practice and features as part of a complaint.

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  • This is dangerous ,mistakes have happened because of communication problems due to language problems ,it should be made more difficult not easier,I understand we need more nurses but not, if it means danger to life ,

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  • Above someone mentions her daughter taught in the Philippines American style (which is better ) she can’t pass the test for the UK ,can I point out she wants to work in the U.K. so pass the UK test ,or go to work in the US if she thinks their language is better,EASY,

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  • A tricky problem and I can see both sides.
    The test needs to be fit for purpose, which from comments might not be the case at present.
    On the other hand, while the majority of overseas colleagues I have worked with have an excellent command of English, I have also worked with those where inability to communicate and record accurately posed a real problem in fulfilling their NMC responsibilities. In one post particularly there were several registered nurses who were unable to explain aspects of ongoing care to our regular patients - the result being that they waited until I was on duty to get clear, understandable information!
    Given that so many complaints in the NHS are at least partially caused by communication breakdown, the ability to communicate accurately, concisely and unambiguously, both verbally and in writing, is essential. This goes for Brits too! The NMC has a duty to ensure that Registered Nurses meet an appropriate standard (see Code of Conduct)

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  • I'm curious. Who has to take this test? Is it only those who don't speak English as a first language? I understand that Brits wanting to register as nurses in Australia must pass their English language test.

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  • Whatever next - communication is key in our profession and many foreign nurses cannot make themselves understood , or understand our language. Should not be made easier.!! Is this a case of shifting the goalposts to suit ?

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