Children with long-term conditions are now “at risk in the classroom” due to the accelerating loss of school nurses, according to the Royal College of Nursing.
If staffing levels continue to deteriorate, pupils with conditions like asthma, epilepsy and diabetes may be unable to attend mainstream school, the college has claimed.
“School nursing is a critical service and it needs to be treated as such”
According to latest workforce data published by NHS Digital this week, more than 550 school nurses have been lost since 2010, representing almost 19% of the total NHS workforce in England.
The number of school nurses has fallen from 2,987 in May 2010 – the year the Conservatives came to power via the coalition – to just 2,433 whole-time equivalent NHS posts in May this year.
This is despite statutory guidance isued by the Department for Education in 2014, which stated that all children with health conditions should be supported to go to school, noted the RCN.
The fall has gathered pace, warned the RCN, with nearly 130 posts lost so far this year – down from 2,562 in January.
The data, published on 22 August, covers the period from September 2009 to May 2017. It reveals that the highpoint during that period was in January 2010, when there 3,026 WTE school nurses.
Today’s warning from the college is the latest from itself and other unions in recent years on the continuing decline in school nurse numbers. The RCN issued a similar raft of concerns back in May, on cuts to both school nurse and health visiting services.
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School nursing services across the country have faced particular upheaval since councils integrated them with others, following the full transfer of public health commissioning in autumn 2015.
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The RCN said it was calling on the government to provide local authorities with the funds needed for fully-staffed school nursing services, so that every child can attend school safely.
It noted that almost a quarter of 11-15 year olds in England report having a disability or long-term condition, including asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and arthritis.
School nurses are vital in helping children with long-term health conditions to attend mainstream schools, said the college.
It highlighted that the role ensured teachers were trained to identify warning signs, like shortness of breath or dizziness, and to administer lifesaving treatments, such as an EpiPen or insulin injection.
School nurses also ensured children took their medication at the right time of day and that adjustments were made so all pupils could participate fully in lessons, including P.E. and school trips.
Fiona Smith, RCN professional lead for children and young people’s nursing, said: “It would be completely unjust if a child couldn’t participate in school life because of their health condition.
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“Every child has the right to an education and it is the government’s responsibility to make that happen,” said Ms Smith.
“With school nurse numbers at their lowest in years, it soon won’t be possible to provide the care these children need within the school environment,” she warned.
“Cuts to public health budgets are leaving whole communities without the care they need and this is limiting the opportunities of thousands of children,” she added.
“It is time the government wakes up and realises the hugely detrimental impact these cuts are having to our children and our society,” she said. “School nursing is a critical service.”