The falling number of school nurses in the UK is having a ‘hugely detrimental’ effect on the health and security of children, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Hundreds of school nurses congregated in London on 24 August for the RCN’s annual school nurses conference, where experts shared their knowledge on issues currently at the forefront of health concerns for young people.
READ MORE: Exclusions leading to poor mental health for school pupils
According to the NHS, more than 550 school nurses have been lost since 2010, 19% of the total NHS workforce in England. The fall has gathered pace in recent months, with more than a hundred posts lost so far this year.
‘It would be completely unjust if a child couldn’t participate in school life because of their health condition,’ said RCN lead for children Fiona Smith. ‘Every child has the right to an education and it is the government’s responsibility to make that happen.
‘It is time the government wakes up and realises the hugely detrimental impact these cuts are having to our children and our society. School nursing is a critical service and it needs to be treated as such.’
Losing school nurses is leaving teachers without training and pupils without support, to the point where pupils with health conditions may be unable to attend mainstream school, the RCN has warned.
The RCN called on the government to provide local authorities with funding for fully-staffed school nursing services. Almost a quarter of 11-15 year olds in England report have a long term illness or disability, including asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and arthritis.
READ MORE: Government obesity programme 'not enough' to help kids
Guidance from the Department for Education in 2014 stated that all children with health conditions should be supported to go to school, but the number of school nurses has fallen from 2,987 to 2,433 full time NHS posts in England.
At the conference, issues touched upon by guest speakers included self harm, working with transgender young people, and how to meet the needs of autistic people.
Colin Dayan, a professor at Cardiff University, described the rise in diabetes and obesity as an ‘epidemic’ for young people. ‘The richer a country is, the fatter the people tend to be – which leads to eating attitudes that can cause diabetes,’ he said.
‘Wales is expecting to have a quarter of a million people with type 2 diabetes by 2025. It is a product of affluence and we need to inspire an attitude change towards food. This means adults leading by example and learning where their calories come from properly. Then children will follow suit.’
Gender identity nurse specialist Paul Carruthers spoke about his work at Leeds Teacher Hospital helping transgender young people to transition. He said that school nurses were important to advise teachers and other pupils on how best to interact with patients and urged them not to ‘shy away’ from the issues facing transgender pupils.
READ MORE: Schools and health services must unite against 'false economy' in children's mental health
According to Virginia Davies, a consultant in paediatric liaison at Kings College Hospital, 20% of young women admit they have self harmed at some time or another. She urged school nurses to look at the psychological effects, as well as the physical, of self harming and to ‘help children find healthier ways to cope with and process what they are experiencing.’
Policy manager for the National Autistic Society Tim Nicholls told the attending nurses that ‘understanding underpins everything’ when working with autistic pupils. He said autistic children’s’ main concerns are learning more about social situations and trying to make friends, and school nurses were key to guiding positive attitudes from others.