The leader of the Royal College of Nursing is calling for every school to have its own full-time nurse to help spot illness, injury and the growing toll of mental illness among pupils.
The move would let schools play a much bigger role in meeting pupils’ physical and mental health needs and aid their recovery from the impact of Covid, said Dame Donna Kinnair.
Kinnair, the chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, believes giving all schools a dedicated nurse would also help tackle childhood obesity. “Every school should have a school nurse because they are a vital part of the education of children and young people,” she said.
“With one in six children and young people experiencing mental health issues, the role of the school nurses has never been more important in assisting them. We also know issues such as obesity and diabetes are increasing. Investing in school nurses can go a long way to reducing the impact of these issues, which can have lifelong consequences.”
Kinnair has made the call in a manifesto of ideas to improve health in the UK produced by the College of Medicine. The group of health professionals want to “redefine medicine beyond pills and procedures” and use both conventional and non-conventional ways of treating illness, for example thorough “social prescribing” – advising patients to take part in social and recreational activities such as walking, dancing and gardening to tackle depression and loneliness instead of taking antidepressants.
The group includes Sir Sam Everington, a GP who is highly-admired for improving the health of poor and multi-ethnic communities in the East End of London, and Michael Dixon, a family doctor in Devon, former chair of the NHS Alliance and health adviser to Prince Charles.
They write: “The College of Medicine believes physical, mental and social health needs to be the focus of all schools. This can only be done with a full-time nurse in every school and on every governing board.”
There is currently only about one nurse for every 10 of England’s 21,000 state schools, so nurses generally work in a number of schools. NHS figures show that the number of school nurses in England fell from 2,962 in 2009 to just 2,060 last year – a drop of 30%.
Teaching unions backed Kinnair’s call. “We very much support the idea of a school nurse in every school,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. It would represent “a step change in how we support children’s health.”
“Currently school nurses generally look after several schools, conducting visits and drop-in sessions. It would be fantastic if every school had its own nurse because it would mean that each school was able to always draw on the expertise of a trained health professional.”
While Covid’s impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing has underlined the need for dedicated school nurses, the government would have to fund the significant expansion involved and there would be recruitment challenges to overcome, Barton added.Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said a decade of Whitehall-driven austerity had limited schools’ resources. “Many will have reluctantly had to lose valuable members of their team, nurses included,” he said.
“NAHT research has shown that 84% of school leaders agreed that schools should have a single member of staff with relevant knowledge and expertise to act as the school lead for mental health. We urgently need the government to provide vital additional resources to make this possible in all schools.”
The Department of Health and Social Care was asked for a response.