We must seize opportunities to make the educational experience for nurses better, says Lord Willis
When the Royal College of Nursing approached me to consider chairing a commission on the future of nurse education, I must confess I was a little apprehensive. I have spent most of my professional life in education, led two large state comprehensive schools, been shadow minister for education and skills and have a passion for science and medicine but, like most lay people, knew little about how nurses are trained. But how we educate and train someone for what is, at its heart, a “caring” profession - a profession where complex technologies, drugs and treatment paths stand juxtaposed with meeting the most basic of human needs was too important a task
My experience of education, and of working to improve it, is that three years of training can affect 30 years of practice. If there are ways in which we can make the educational experience for nurses better, we need to seize them with both hands - for the benefit of student nurses and patients everywhere.
Nursing has changed beyond recognition in the past few decades. You are now being asked to undertake complex and technical levels of care that previously would have fallen to junior doctors. This change hasn’t occurred because nurses sought equality from their doctor colleagues, it’s arisen out of necessity.
“It is right that the commission examines whether the balance between nursing theory and clinical practice is right”
I am under no illusion that had nurses not risen to the challenge and gained these extra skills, the health service would simply have ceased to function. The reality is that now, in 2012, more and more people are living with long-term conditions. These conditions require complicated treatment, often over a period of many years; quite simply, compassion alone will not solve the problem (although it does remain utterly vital). The move therefore to a graduate-entry only profession appears wise, although it is right that the commission examines whether the balance between nursing theory and clinical practice is right.
However, we cannot escape the apparently constant criticism that is thrown at the nursing profession as a result of reports from the Patients Association and Care Quality Commission and some parts of the media. There are many labels, “too clever to care” and “too posh to wash” being just two of the things today’s nurses are accused of. I want to understand more about why some patients, and patient groups, feel this way. I want to learn why some organisations and individuals believe that a degree course leads to a nurse who is less caring than a nurse without a degree. I also want to speak to the students themselves - how can we improve their experience? What more can be done? What doesn’t work as well as it should? These questions, and more, will be posed by the commission.
We will also explore what works very well. Excellent practice exists in areas all over the UK, and we want to find these and learn more. If something is being done excellently in Amersham, it should be implemented in Aberdeen. The commission will seek out good educational practice and share it with the people who can make things happen all over the country.
I want the commission’s work to be very positive. The vast majority of nurses continue to do excellent work in a multitude of settings, often in very difficult circumstances. The RCN has entrusted me to lead this commission and expects me to confront difficult issues, and I expect to do just that. We both have one aim to ensure that nurses receive the best education and training possible.
I can’t wait to get started.
Lord Willis is chair of the Education Commission