An NHS trust in the West Midlands has requested that the threshold to pass the English language test for overseas nurses be reduced after just three of 118 nurses from the Philippines were offered jobs at one of their hospitals.
Managers at Walsall Manor Hospital said their chronic staffing shortfall could be resolved ‘overnight’ if the language standards from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) were reduced.
Executives from the trust made two trips to the Philippines last year in an attempt to recruit more nursing staff.
That trip saw 118 Filipino nurses accept posts to work at the hospital but just three passed the International English Language Test (IELTS) to the standard required by the NMC.
This is despite the fact that the trust’s director of nursing is ‘really confident’ that all of the nurses are capable of doing the job.
The NMC said that the current required pass rate of 7.0 out of 9.0 is ‘on par’ with standards in other English-speaking countries and that the number of new registrations from overseas has in fact increased from 66,251 in March 2015 to 67,345 in March this year.
NMC chief executive and registrar, Jackie Smith, has said the body is ‘fully aware’ of the urgency of the situation but stressed that the regulator cannot lower its standards because of workforce pressures alone.
Rachel Overfield, director of nursing at Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, said at their annual general meeting: ‘We went overseas to the Philippines twice in the last year. We have offered posts to in excess of 100 nurses there. Three have arrived.
‘The reason is we just can’t get them through the International English Language Test. I am really confident the ones we have offered posts to are capable of doing that job but we cannot get them in because of the rules from the NMC and immigration folks.
‘All we can do is to lobby at a national level. If we could get those nurses in it would solve our problem overnight.’
The three nurses who were successful have not started working because they have not yet passed a mandatory practical examination.
The language test
All non-EU trained nurses must complete the IELTS, which assesses listening, reading, writing and speaking skills, before applying to join the NMC’s nursing register.
In May the NMC indicated it would consider introducing easier language tests during its address of its standards this year.
Since 2007, it has been a requirement for nurses outside the European Union to pass the test with a minimum score of 7.0 out of 9.0 across all four elements of reading, writing, listening and speaking.
At the start of 2016 English language testing was also brought in for EU nurses, with the same pass score as for non-EU nurses.
Since last summer, there has been a significant reduction in the number of EU nurses registering with the NMC, with many blaming the introduction of the IELTS for the drop.
NMC council papers from the July meeting said: ‘The data we have gathered so far does not allow us to firmly conclude whether a move to 6.5 in writing would raise public protection risks. Conversely, there is little evidence to say that it would not.’
As well as considering lowering the pass mark for the written section of the IELTS, the NMC is looking into the use of alternative assessments, including the Occupational English Test (OET).
OET, which is owned by the University of Cambridge, is used as verification of English standard for healthcare professionals in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and has a practical approach.
Exam-takers are asked to listen and speak in a simulated patient consultation, read health-related texts, and write a referral letter or similar.
However, Joyce Robins of Patient Concern said: ‘We can’t afford to have nurses who don’t understand what you are saying.
‘We already have some nurses who don’t understand what you are saying and that is a concern.
‘We need to work hard to make sure they get to the right standard before they start work.’