Nurses have received a bad press, ranging from concern that they lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, to claims that they are failing to treat patients with sufficient care and dignity. This in turn has left question marks within the profession over the quality of newly qualified nurses and highlighted problems with pre-registration education.
Since the current shortage of nurses began, higher education institutes have sought to fill places to keep pace with demand but in so doing have faced claims that they have lowered entry standards and are not providing students with enough support.
NHS London has already taken the step of introducing a rating system for nursing courses, the results of which will decide whether or not courses will continue to be commissioned.
The Department of Health now looks set to take this idea to a national level. It is currently in the middle of a major review of how support can be improved for student nurses, which includes the likely introduction of 'variable pricing' - whereby courses that turn out the best quality nurses will be paid more than those seen as producing nurses of a poorer calibre. The idea is that quality is rewarded as well as quantity.
Another piece of work is looking at the development of nurse preceptorships, the introduction of which has been discussed over the last few years and was highlighted in the NHS Next Stage Review. However, despite an increase in funding this year for preceptorships, the figure still falls short of the money necessary to provide them for all new nurses.
Whether variable pricing is the best answer to solving the perceived quality problems in nurse education or not, we shall see - it is certainly likely to face opposition from some nurse educators.
But there appears at last to be momentum in attempting to get nurse education back on track.
Nursing must be established on firm educational foundations or it will not grow into the profession that will be able to meet the needs of patients.
Steve Ford news editor, Nursing Times