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Open the purses for student nurses

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VOL: 97, ISSUE: 24, PAGE NO: 35

Janet Gillan MSc RGN NDNCert DPSN

So the polls were right - the Labour Party is back in power. But will it prove to be sincere about its election promise to increase the number of nurses in the health service? What I do not understand is how the government can expect to reach its target of 20,000 extra nurses over the next five years, when it won't substantially increase the bursary for student nurses. If it doubled the bursary now, as called for in the Nursing Times manifesto, preregistration drop-out rates among nursing students would probably fall significantly.

So the polls were right - the Labour Party is back in power. But will it prove to be sincere about its election promise to increase the number of nurses in the health service? What I do not understand is how the government can expect to reach its target of 20,000 extra nurses over the next five years, when it won't substantially increase the bursary for student nurses. If it doubled the bursary now, as called for in the Nursing Times manifesto, preregistration drop-out rates among nursing students would probably fall significantly.

Now I'm not naive enough to suppose this would solve the retention or even recruitment problem overnight, but it's difficult to imagine how nursing students, particularly those with children, cope with the demands of clinical practice, university work and managing everyday living. And trying to stretch a meagre bursary to cover child care costs when you may be the sole breadwinner is simply unimaginable.

Yet the government, in its strategic policy documents on nursing, urges higher education institutions to widen access, put on part-time courses, and capture more mature students, many of whom may have children and be single parents. Yet bursaries have not been raised sufficiently to cover child care support. And although promises were made in the lead-up to the general election, none of them help with the here and now.

The problem of inadequate numbers of registered nurses needs urgent attention. We are experiencing huge problems in the health service now, and many patients are going without the best quality nursing care. So why not double the bursary now, at least for those single parents who need to meet the cost of child care. This might help prevent three years of further problems and go some way towards reducing attrition rates. What's more, the government will not meet its targets set out in The NHS Plan unless it acts now.

The government's focus appears to be mainly on improving recruitment, which is fine if it intends to support those new recruits, but if retention isn't taken seriously the problems will only be compounded.

What is also worrying is that the Liberal Democrats won't guarantee to double the bursary either, and the Conservatives would only agree to look at travel allowances and uniforms. This demonstrates a lack of value being placed on nursing by all three parties.

No wonder large numbers of nurses stayed away from the voting booths. At the recent Nursing Careers Show a poll showed that the majority of nurses intended to vote Labour, but the next largest group decided not to vote at all.

Until a political party decides to take firm action to stem the tide of nurses leaving the health service, nurses will not see the point of supporting any of them.

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