I used to think that the Flat Earth Society were being a bit sarcastic.
I imagined that they accepted that the earth was not flat but liked thinking about the world in old-fashioned ways. They might dress up in flowing robes at the weekend, say “forsooth” and enjoy reading parchment by candlelight, for example.
I was wrong. I read an interview with the president of the Flat Earth Society recently and it seems they do believe the world is flat, or at least disc shaped. Not so long ago, they thought anyone who disagreed with them lacked common sense.
In the words of a former president of the International Flat Earth Society, from 1980, a Mr Johnson: “Wherever you find people with a great reservoir of common sense, they don’t believe idiotic things such as the earth spinning around the sun. Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognised that the earth is flat.”
I mention this not to be unkind about the society but because I am increasingly fascinated by what constitutes “common sense” and how we all arrive at it.
Take, for example, nurse education. Nursing Times reported recently that NHS London had decided to cut its adult nursing student numbers by nearly 25%. This cut was prompted by “quality fears”. Nurse Professor Trish Morris-Thompson said the cuts were “in response to concerns from the nursing profession about the quality of the product coming out of the HEIs”.
“Nurses were graduating who weren’t employable; there were issues around literacy, numeracy and attitude. We want to drive up the quality of training to make sure they can contribute to the workforce and are employable,” she said.
Nurse education is the problem, apparently. Not the economic reality of an impending 15% reduction in non-medical training budgets over “the next three or four years”. Righto.
I find this troubling. Is it a problem of “product” (I am very uncomfortable with that word) or process? If nurses are not able to contribute, why are they being signed off as competent? If the product is so poor, who is going to tell the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which set the core and parameters of all training? Generally, has a workforce that not long ago faced a recruitment crisis changed so much that we can afford to cut right back on student nurses?
I think that “common sense” is being constructed to suit some economic imperatives. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that policy makers would prefer a nursing workforce devoid of critical-thinking skills, thus ensuring they go unchallenged. Disinvesting in student nurses because they are not good enough is a case of inventing a reason to justify the politics of austerity. In this case, that “reasoning” is creating a circumstance where nurse education is being denigrated, and maybe downgraded, and regressed.
At a time when we ought to be asking how we can expand education to include ways of supporting and developing the human qualities of care expected of nurses - qualities being scrutinised at the Mid-Staffs inquiry - we are left instead hoping those qualities just happen to be in recruits when we get them and they manage to find a way of holding on to them while working.
It may be the case that we need better numeracy skills but we also need to invest in more complex talents such as sustaining emotional engagement. There is more to brilliant nursing than task performance and, if we are not careful, economic arguments will be dressed up as “common sense” to defend a wholesale disinvestment in nursing and students. Our future workforce deserves better.
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel