The number of people completing a district nurse specialist qualification in the UK may rise by as much as a fifth this year, the largest increase recorded, a QNI report has revealed.
The community nursing charity’s fifth annual district nurse education report, published on Friday, surveyed 38 of the 43 universities approved to offer the district nurse specialist practitioner qualification (SPQ), taken by registered nurses to prepare to work in the community.
The QNI reported the ‘extraordinary’ finding that 554 people have completed the district nurse specialist practitioner qualification (SPQ) in 2020, while a further 121 still have modules, assessments or exams to complete because of delays and postponents to programmes caused by the pandemic.
It noted that if all 675 students complete the SPQ programme, this would be a 22% rise on the 555 students who qualified with a district nurse SPQ in 2019 – and represent the largest increase recorded since the annual QNI audit began in 2013.
In addition, the report found that district nurse SPQ completions are likely to rise even further in 2020/21, with 819 students currently signed up for the next academic year and an additional 127 students progressing into the second year of their part-time programme.
QNI chief executive Dr Crystal Oldman said ‘this was an exceptional year for 2019/2020 student intake’, especially given all courses were ‘interrupted and impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic’.
But she cautioned that further work was needed to determine whether the figures ‘reflect actual demand for the programme’ or whether actual demand could be even more, but places are limited because of funding.
She also cautioned that community service providers are ‘navigating an unclear future’ around the funding for DN SPQ programmes
Many respondents reported fears that funding from Health Education England (HEE) for places will be scrapped or reduced and replaced with the apprenticeship model in England. This comes after a district nurse apprenticeship standard was approved by the NMC in February 2019.
Apprenticeships are funded through the apprenticeship levy, which is a tax on employers to help fund their delivery. They are a two-year part-time course, while the ‘traditional’ HEE-funded district nurse SPQ programme is usually full-time and completed in a year.
One respondent noted that ‘there is no clarity [from HEE] with regards to future funding from 2021 onwards’, while another said ‘there is concerns that should apprenticeship be the only funding source that student numbers could decrease further’.
Another explained: ‘Providers prefer HEE funding with backfill and will not use levy whilst this is still available. Apprenticeship levy means the students will be part-time, which may affect cohort numbers as two cohorts will overlap. This will potentially reduce the numbers qualifying each year.’
More than half of the universities that responded stated that they would continue as usual with funding from HEE – although at least five said they would offer an apprenticeship route alongside their existing programme and three were looking into only offering the apprenticeship route.
Dr Oldman continued: ‘Against this uncertainty, new district nurse SPQ programmes are under development, again demonstrating the need for the qualification which has been articulated by the community service providers.’
Currently, the NMC holds separate standards for SPQ programmes in district nursing, general practice nursing, community learning disabilities nursing, community children’s nursing and community mental health nursing.
But draft proposals would introduce one set of SPQ standards for all fields with ‘bespoke elements where needed’.