Is a lack of school nurses putting student wellbeing at risk?
Anyone working in the education sector will recognise the instrumental role that school nurses play in protecting the health and wellbeing of students.
From carrying out health assessments and providing immunisations to offering education and advice on healthy living and proper diets, school nurses have a number of important responsibilities, with their presence helping pupils to reach their full potential and enjoy a happy, healthy education.
However, a new report has offered evidence that the essential work that school nurses do is coming under threat from a lack of resources, which has led to an escalating shortage of staff numbers that could cause serious problems for students and staff in the years to come unless a solution is found.
An ongoing decline
This troubling trend was highlighted in an analysis of NHS Digital data from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which demonstrated that 550 school nurses have left the profession without being replaced between May 2010 and May 2017. This represents almost one-fifth of the total NHS school nursing workforce in England.
With the number of school nurses falling from 2,987 to 2,433 full-time NHS posts in England, further concerns have been raised that these losses are accelerating, with more than a hundred posts lost so far this year.
The RCN has been sharply critical of the government for its role in this decline in staff numbers, as it believes that years of austerity measures and shrinking investment in public health services have meant that local authorities no longer have the funds they need to maintain fully-staffed school nursing services.
The potential consequences
The risks posed by a decline in the availability of school nursing services are as clear as they are numerous, with potential negative implications for teachers and pupils alike.
For teachers, who rely on school nurses to provide training and guidance on managing common health problems among the student body, the disappearance of this support will result in a sudden knowledge gap; for pupils, the consequences are even more serious, and could potentially jeopardise their ability to attend school safely.
Almost a quarter of those aged 11-15 in England are affected by some form of long-term illness or disability, such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and arthritis. The RCN has warned that a lack of school nurses could make it unsafe or impossible for these students to participate in the mainstream school system - and that this would occur despite 2014 guidance from the Department for Education stipulating that all children with health conditions should be supported to help them attend school.
Naturally, the serious nature of these implications have prompted the RCN to call upon the government to do more to treat school nursing as a critical service, and to acknowledge the "hugely detrimental impact" its policy of public sector cuts are having on schools and society in general.
Fiona Smith, the RCN's professional lead for children and young people's nursing, said: "It would be completely unjust if a child couldn't participate in school life because of their health condition. Every child has the right to an education and it is the government's responsibility to make that happen."
The organisation has been supported in its call by the National Union of Teachers, which told the Guardian that this trend is "yet another symptom of the school funding crisis". However, the government has since moved to offer reassurance that this is an issue that is being taken seriously, and that efforts will be made to ensure that students do not lose access to essential healthcare support during their school years.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "School nurses play an important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of young people.
"Local authorities are best placed to make choices about services for their community, which is why decisions about public health funding sit with them. To help, we are investing more than £16 billion in local government public health services over the current spending period, and will continue to support schools in their duty to make arrangements for pupils with medical needs."
Summary: A new report has indicated that a lack of school nurses could be creating health and wellbeing risks for vulnerable students.