School nurse workloads risk undermining essential support for children with long-term health conditions, a new report has found.
Research published by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) suggests that the confidence of school nurses to provide essential support to children with long-term health conditions like diabetes and asthma risks being undermined by high work loads and having to work across numerous schools.
The report, Nursing in Schools, looked at school nurses confidence in managing five highly prevalent long-term health conditions: asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, anaphylaxis and eczema.
The survey, completed by one in eight of the school nurses in England, found that 90% said high workloads with limited time and resources challenged their ability to support children with long-term health needs.
Meanwhile, of the nearly four-in-ten school nurses who work across 10 or more schools, all are significantly less confident in providing help to pupils with serious health conditions compared to those working in fewer schools.
The lack of confidence was particularly acute when it came to providing support to pupils with diabetes – a condition with increasing prevalence because of childhood obesity.
Only 42% of schools nurses were comfortable helping to treat this condition, suggesting an urgent need for better training.
The report is published as the number of school nurses is falling, with some estimates suggesting that just 2,606 NHS school nurses support the 8.4 million school-age children in England.
Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people’s nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “School nurses have a major part to play in the health of our children, and this report highlights one of many critical elements of their role.
“Their expertise is vital in supporting children with long term conditions such as asthma and epilepsy in the school environment.
“They have the skills to help these children get the most from their education by training teaching staff to support children with these conditions and react appropriately in times of crisis – such as an asthma attack.
“School nurses support all children to live healthy lives, both physically and emotionally, however, as workforce numbers plummet, there are limits to how much they can do.
“With nine out of ten school nurses saying they are limited in time and resources, the health of children is at serious risk.”
The research also indicated a lack of understanding amongst parents about the role of the school nurse, and that poor communication with parents was a barrier to them supporting children.
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the NCB, said: “The day-to-day work of school nurses is varied and vital. Alongside their support of pupils with serious health conditions and disabilities, school nurses are increasingly called on to provide vital expertise on child protection, mental health, sex education and bullying.
“This is on top of their more traditional roles in providing vaccinations and raising awareness of healthy lifestyles.
“We need the Department of Health to adequately fund local authorities’ public health work, so they can recruit and train school nurses in sufficient numbers to ensure their unique contribution to the health of children is protected.”
The report calls for the “Government to develop the recruitment and training of more school nurses to service the needs of an expanding role and a larger school population.”