There are fewer than 50 nursing directors on a national list of around 1,000 people being lined up for the most senior NHS leadership roles, Nursing Times can reveal.
The information, obtained using Freedom of Information legislation, has emerged as the government pledges to support clinical leaders amid fears nurses will be denied meaningful leadership roles on clinical commissioning group boards.
The list of those on the Department of Health’s “Top Leaders” scheme contains 43 directors of nursing – half the number of medical directors, of which there are 85.
The scheme was launched last year to identify those either already working in, or capable of working in, the most influential leadership positions in the NHS. Costing £2.69m over the past 18 months, it is used as a “talent pool” from which to select candidates for senior posts.
Participants are given a tailored career development plan and access to mentors, coaching, secondments, “stretch opportunities”, networking and placements.
Analysis by Nursing Times reveals there are 75 people on the programme with “nurse” or “nursing” in their job title and 13 whose titles include the word “quality”, who may also have nursing backgrounds.
This accounts for 10% of all participants, while medical directors and GPs make up 14%, chief executives comprise 24% and finance directors account for 11%. The rest mainly work in human resources, communications and public health.
NHS Nottinghamshire County’s director of quality and governance Amanda Sullivan, a nurse who is on the programme, said the higher number of doctors partly reflected their increasing role in commissioning.
However, she added it was important more nurses were supported to become leaders as “nurses are generally very sensitive to what patients need and nursing is often about coordinating care”.
She added: “If we’re moving to saying that quality is the organising principle of the NHS and commissioning is clinically led, then nurses need to be able to demonstrate the behaviours and skills needed.”
The Top Leaders programme had given her better insight into her skills and the confidence to secure a secondment as Newark and Sherwood CCG chief executive, she said.
It was now up to nurses on the scheme to ensure nursing colleagues with leadership potential were identified at an early stage, she added.
Other prominent nurses on the scheme include DH chief nursing officer David Foster, NHS North West’s nursing director Jane Cummings and Imperial College Healthcare Trust’s nursing director Janice Sigsworth.
The list is continuously updated as people retire, move into new roles or leave the NHS.
Dame Donna Kinair, NHS Southwark’s director of nursing and commissioning, is also on the programme. She acknowledged there “weren’t many” nurses in her cohort.
Like Ms Sullivan, she stressed the importance of recognising and strengthening nurse leadership in light of the move to clinical commissioning.
The government was persuaded to require CCG boards to contain a nurse following an outcry from staff and Nursing Times Seat on the Board campaign.
But there is still uncertainty as to whether CCGs will grant nurses a full role when it comes to making decisions.
Dame Donna said nurses should be supported to develop the leadership skills to avoid being a “token” on CCG boards. Their contribution was vital because: “In developing any patient pathway the nurse perspective may be very different from a medical perspective, she said.
Developing strong nurse leaders would ensure CCG nurse representatives were able to “stand up and be counted”, she said.
But she warned: “The biggest danger is not having the right candidates at the table”, adding: “It’s important for CCGs to recognise it’s not necessarily the people who have operated within their practices that have the right skill set.
A DH spokeswoman said around 35% of those on the Top Leaders programme had a clinical background.
The full list of “Top Leaders” can be seen at nursingtimes.net/topleaders