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'Not cutting school nurse budgets should be a simple lesson'

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The threat to school nursing seems to be growing. This is something that surely must be fought at all costs by anyone with a stake in public health or the wellbeing of children – which is basically all of us in one way or another.

Nursing Times has revealed that scores of school nurses in Birmingham could be facing redundancy due to plans to cut funding by virtually half and scrap the school nursing service.

The decision to decommission the service comes after the city council agreed to slash funding by £2m – almost half the current £4.2m budget for the School Health Advisory Service. It comes after the council agreed to move from a universal to a “targeted” service, in light of substantial cuts to its overall funding allocation for public health.

One school nurse told Nursing Times that she feared for the safety of vulnerable youngsters if the service, currently provided by Birmingham Community Healthcare Foundation Trust, was cut.

Among the many ill-conceived plans that are around at the moment in health and social care, this one sounds like a truly terrible one.

The move has already been described as “futile” by the School and Public Health Nurses Association, while Unite said the “most vulnerable will slip through the net as a result of these significant cuts”.

On Twitter, former Royal College of Nursing chief executive Peter Carter said: “This must be as short-sighted and as ill-conceived as anything I have heard of in recent times.

“The state of children’s health in the country is a matter of serious concern. We need investment not cuts.”

However, this is not the first time I have written about similar threats around the country and, like the Birmingham case, we have school nurses to thank for telling us about them.

Last July, I received a call from a school nurse in Slough, who was concerned about the imminent transfer of her service’s contract to a private provider with little experience of children’s care.

“But this is surely gambling with the health of the young”

I do understand that councils are under severe financial pressure after eight years of reduced funding from central government declines and, as a result, are looking at new service structures or contracts that appear cheaper to provide.

But this is surely gambling with the health of the young, and also a false economy that simply stores up costs – probably greater ones – further down the line for health and social care services.

Of course, the best plan is to invest properly in services, especially those involving children, at national, regional and local levels.

Meanwhile, the long-term staffing solution is to get more people onto the right courses and then into the right jobs, and to persuade those already in them from leaving.

But if we are so short of money, then surely a better answer than cutting is to at least try to help the ever-dwindling number of school nurses do their job more easily.

Earlier this month I chaired a roundtable event on the use of technology by nurses, where the innovative use of apps by school nurses was highlighted by one speaker.

I was reminded of a story we wrote a couple of years ago about an innovative text messaging service for teenagers run by school nurses at Leicestershire Partnership Trust.

“The alternative to this kind of welcome innovation is surely more disturbing stories of cuts, cuts and more cuts”

The project, called ChatHealth, uses a confidential SMS helpline to provide help and advice to 100,000 11-to-19-year-olds in the local area.

Professor Viv Bennett, head of nursing at Public Health England, has also previously championed similar advances in communications technology for helping nurses reach more schoolchildren.

The alternative to this kind of welcome innovation is surely more disturbing stories of cuts, cuts and more cuts.

At best, it means we will have fewer tools to help children at a time of escalating concerns about growing challenges from mental health and obesity. At worst… well that doesn’t really bear thinking about.

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