A fall in school nurse numbers is “letting children and young people down”, a charity supporting the profession has said.
NHS England recently released its latest workforce figures, which showed a decrease in the school nursing workforce of around 33% between 2009 and 2022, from 2,915 to 1,945.
Of the 1,945 school nursing staff included in the most recent count, 852 were described as “qualified school nurses”.
“It’s a perfect storm; the numbers have dwindled and the need for school nurses has increased”
While it is understood extra school nurses are employed in the private sector and by local authorities, Sallyann Sutton, interim professional officer at the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA), said the workforce had felt a significant reduction in numbers – and that they were “tired”.
Ms Sutton said the demand on school nurses had dramatically increased since the Covid-19 pandemic, having already been on the up long before.
“We, at SAPHNA, have continuous conversations with school nurses and they will tell you there is a decline in their areas,” Ms Sutton said.
“It’s been on a steady decline over five or six years. But, at the same time, the complexity of need and sheer volume of need has increased.
“Demand and capacity is an issue, visibility of nurses has reduced. It’s estimated that there are around 1.5 school nurses for every ten schools.”
As well as caseload, Ms Sutton explained the complexity of need among pupils had shifted.
“We now have the cost of living crisis, and the impact of Covid meant a massive rise in mental health issues,” she told Nursing Times.
“We’ve seen children worried about the impact money issues have on their family life, safeguarding issues with kids going unseen during the pandemic, meaning issues are materialising now.
“It’s a perfect storm; the numbers have dwindled and the need for school nurses has increased.”
According to Ms Sutton, even when staffing numbers were at their peak, there “never” were enough school nurses.
Much like in other areas of nursing, she added, retention, pay and workload had driven workers out and was putting off new people from entering the workforce.
“The school nursing workforce is ageing,” Ms Sutton continued. “We’re losing people with a vast amount of experience and we can’t replace them.”
Ms Sutton highlighted the need for “more robust” data to understand the true extent of school nursing shortages.
“It’s crucial we have a sustainable workforce as we build a stronger, healthier NHS for the long term”
As well as the issue of the NHS dataset failing to capture all school nurses, Ms Sutton noted that in some cases, staff who move to work in other areas such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) were still being counted as school nurses.
In her own local area, she added, she had seen five school nurses move on to CAMHS and other safeguarding teams, in part due to better pay and working conditions.
“But beside data and stats, we have to listen to what the workforce are saying, and what they’re saying is they feel a decrease in nurses, an increase in the need, and that they’re tired,” warned Ms Sutton.
“It’s impacting them, nurses will carry on, but they get that feeling they’re letting children and young people down.”
Following the release of the NHS workforce data, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said there was a “record” number of doctors and nurses working in the health service in England.
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said: “It’s crucial we have a sustainable workforce as we build a stronger, healthier NHS for the long term with patients at its centre.
“We are making progress in training and recruiting a record number of staff – with over 48,700 more compared to a year ago and the NHS will soon publish a workforce plan focused on recruiting and retaining more staff.”
A SAPHNA spokesperson added that the decline in school nurses was “disappointing”, and that the data was proof that “urgent reinvestment” is needed.
They said: “This workforce report highlights the need for urgent reinvestment into school nursing if we are to stop picking children out of the fire, rather, we stop them falling in in the first place.”