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”
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”
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”
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.