There are more than 1,200 full-time specialist school nurses, supplemented by a further 3,000 qualified nursing staff, working in England today. If you’re interested in nursing in schools, read on to discover the personal qualities and qualifications required, typical duties, and the career opportunities available.
What the role involves
School nurses play an important role in the health and wellbeing of school-age children and their families and provide a range of healthcare services. The work is highly varied, and can range from treating minor injuries and running drop-in clinics to carrying out developmental screening, giving immunisations and helping to deliver the PSHE (personal, social and health education) curriculum.
‘The role has always been about promoting public health with children and families,’ says Sharon White, professional officer with the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA), which represents school nurses.
‘But their work now covers around 50 different facets, ranging from acne to sexual exploitation, self-harm to sleep problems – all those issues centred around the holistic health of children.’
Working as part of a team of health professionals, school nurses also play a key role in helping to prevent the spread of infection and safeguarding children.
Nurses working in schools are often a first port-of-call, offering a sympathetic and non-judgemental ear to young people needing confidential advice – on issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, sexual health, obesity, self-harming and emotional wellbeing.
‘The ability to win the trust of young people and encourage them to open up about their problems is key. As well as being approachable and able to explore sensitive issues with tact and patience, you will need to have a good understanding of confidentiality issues,’ says Cathy Taylor, RCN Careers Advisor.
‘Good team working skills and the ability to work on your own initiative, are also necessary.’
Employment and training
Nurses may be employed by a school directly, a local health authority, or a community NHS provider, and may work for a single school or within a number of schools. Many work in state-maintained schools, but there are also opportunities to work in academies and the private sector in independent boarding schools or day schools.
While it’s possible to apply for a school nursing post straight from initial registration, some employers prefer candidates to have two years’ professional experience as a qualified nurse (any branch) before they begin training or working as a school nurse.
Some expect candidates to already hold a Specialist Community Public Health Nurse (SCPHN School Nursing) qualification. This degree and masters level course is run by a number of universities on a one-year full-time or two-year part-time basis. Other employers may offer registered nurses the opportunity to work under supervision and fund their study for the specialist qualification while on the job.
Nurses working in schools without the SCPHN may be employed under another job title, such as school health nurse or young person’s health adviser.
How to get hired
Qualified nurses applying for their first post in a school will find that having experience of working with young people in the community, along with some knowledge and understanding of health promotion, child protection, family planning, practice nursing, and education and screening, can help
‘Potential employers will want to know that you understand what the role involves, so spending time work shadowing a school nurse can be a good idea,’ says Cathy.
Useful post-registration training for the role includes: first aid at work, contraception/sexual health, asthma, counselling, vision and hearing testing, dermatology, travel health, mental health, anaphylaxis, diabetes, epilepsy, and health and safety.
Future of the profession
Visibility is one of the key issues facing the profession. According to national data from the British Youth Council, half of young people did not know who their school nurse was, 70% did not know how to access the school nurse, and three quarters had never visited except for immunisations.
Sharon White told BBC News: ‘Sometimes the school nurse may seem invisible, but she is spending time on the neediest, complex families and on safeguarding issues. And there’s a difference between accessibility and invisibility.’
In 2013, the Department of Health set out a new vision for school nursing and promised to make it easier to contact school nurses, by texting them to make appointments.
While these kind of initiatives may help, staff shortages are an on-going problem. According to a report from the Commons Education Select Committee, the number of pupils in state schools in England rose from 6.93m in 2009 to 7.14m in 2014, and is expected to increase to 8.02m by 2023.
Despite their being about 20,000 primary and secondary schools in England, the number of school nurses has remained static at around 1,200. As pupil numbers increase, a sustained recruitment drive of school nurses will be required to meet demand.
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