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Should overseas nurses’ English language requirements be relaxed?

NMC consultation will look at whether English tests are overly difficult, following concerns that they may prevent many potential candidates from joining the register

NMC consultation will look at whether English tests are overly difficult, following concerns that they may prevent many potential candidates from joining the register

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) is set to launch a UK-wide consultation on English language tests for overseas nurses, which could lead to a relaxation in standards required.

The move – which is expected to be approved by the regulator’s governing body this week – follows concerns that qualified overseas nurses with proven communication skills are being prevented from joining the register due to overly difficult English language tests.

Unions and healthcare experts say overseas nurses often

NMC consultation will look at whether English tests are overly difficult, following concerns that they may prevent many potential candidates from joining the register

Picture: iStock

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) is set to launch a UK-wide consultation on English language tests for overseas nurses, which could lead to a relaxation in standards required.

The move – which is expected to be approved by the regulator’s governing body this week – follows concerns that qualified overseas nurses with proven communication skills are being prevented from joining the register due to overly difficult English language tests.

Unions and healthcare experts say overseas nurses often end up working in non-registered nursing roles despite widespread shortages of qualified nursing staff across health and social care – a situation that is frustrating for them as well as employers desperate to fill vacancies.

NMC board papers show the regulator has received 74 complaints about English language requirements since mid-2019.

Pass grade for English language test may be lowered

The consultation will look at whether pass grades for English tests are set too high, as well as the type of evidence that can be accepted to demonstrate a nurse’s English is good enough to provide safe care.

Nurses can take one of two tests to prove their English language skills: they must achieve an overall score of 7 in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, or a B grade in the Occupational English Test (OET).

However, a review of the reading, speaking and listening elements of the OET, commissioned by the NMC, recommended the pass grade for speaking be lowered from B to C+ (6.5 in the IELTS).

Growing number of appeals upheld

The regulator’s board papers show that an increasing number of nurses who have been rejected for registration on English language grounds have had that decision overturned on appeal.

Of 32 appeals concluded between November 2019 and April 2022, three quarters (24) were either allowed or conceded because nurses were able to demonstrate their English language skills and ability to practise safely, with their appeal often supported by managers and colleagues.

Earlier this year the NMC confirmed that it would review English language requirements, and it has already gathered initial feedback from international registrants and applicants, employers, test providers and others.

The public consultation, if agreed by the NMC council at its meeting this Thursday, will run for eight weeks starting in June.

Regulator wants to gather wide range of views

NMC director of strategy and insight Matthew McClelland said: ‘We’re grateful to everyone who has already shared their initial views, which have helped shape the options we’re proposing to consult on.

‘We look forward to hearing more from the public, employers and our professionals to make sure our processes are fair and reliable for everyone.’

The main proposed changes to English language requirements

  • Changes to the scores for language tests and how scores from different test sittings can be combined
  • Whether to accept alternative evidence of English skills, such as references from an employer
  • Whether to accept non-nursing, postgraduate qualifications taught and examined in English


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