School nurses deserve greater recognition for the vital work they do, which must be backed up with sustained government investment in their role, according to the Royal College of Nursing.
The call comes ahead of an eagerly-anticipated Department of Health programme to develop school nursing in England due to be launched imminently.
In a position statement published by the RCN this week the union said school nurses played a vital role in public health, including helping ensure ill and disabled children could access education.
However, the union warned school health services had been badly hit by lack of investment, job freezes and cuts, and claimed school nurses had been “poached” to work as health visitors to meet government targets.
Fiona Smith, the RCN’s adviser in children and young people’s nursing, said one problem was a lack of understanding about the scope and importance of school nursing.
“There is a real lack of understanding among commissioners about the role and the impact school nurses can have not just on the health of individual children but on the long-term health of the population,” she told Nursing Times.
She hoped this would be one of the key areas addressed in the government’s development programme, which is also expected to include measures to boost leadership and highlight the importance of involving young people in shaping school health services.
It was vital the scheme promoted a “joined-up approach” that would see schools nurses working closely with health visitors and midwives, Ms Smith added.
The position statement calls for investment in specialist training, supervision and greater clarity on what the title “school nurse” actually means.
The role should continue to be recognised as a higher level of practice amid a planned – but currently delayed – review of specialist community nursing training by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said the union.
Previously the RCN has said it would like to see a school nurse – with the relevant specialist qualification – for every secondary school and its cluster primary schools.
However, the union admitted it was hard to get a completely accurate picture as nurses are employed by a range of different organisations including the NHS, local authorities and private schools.
Karen Didovich, RCN senior employment relations adviser, said: “The age profile of school nursing is higher than average, something that employers and commissioners are going to have to think carefully about if they are going to retain that expertise within the community. They need to look at succession planning.”
She hoped this would be made easier with the advent of Local Education and Training Boards, which are being introduced under the government’s reforms and are designed to improve local workforce planning.
But Ms Didovich added: “School nursing is a small part of the workforce so it could still be left out. With low morale affecting the whole of nursing we could see demoralised, older school nurses just walking away.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “We agree that school nurses do a crucial job. We see them as leaders in improving public health and have been working with partners including the RCN to empower nurses to fulfil this role.
“That’s why we will shortly publish our new vision for school nursing, which will reaffirm the importance of school nurses’ role in public health and supporting children will illness and disability in schools.”
She added: “Over the last two years the number of school nurses has remained broadly stable and there is no evidence that school nurses are being poached to be health visitors. If a school nurse wishes to be a health visitor they would need additional training – they cannot simply be substituted.”
Figures from the NHS Information Centre show that in October 2011 there were 1,147 school nurses with a Specialist Community Public Health Nursing qualification – the same figure as in 2009.
They are supported by the full-time equivalent of a further 1,916 registered nurses working in schools.