How a programme for future nurse leaders has prepared them for the top

At the end of 2015, deputy directors of nursing were being interviewed for one of 15 sought-after places on a new kind of leadership course.

At the end of 2015, deputy directors of nursing were being interviewed for one of 15 sought-after places on a new kind of leadership course

The course is designed to prepare nurses and midwives
for a director of nursing role. Picture: Nick Lowndes

Aimed at those aspiring to become chief nurses, the masters-level course was created, in part, to address concerns about the high number of nurse director vacancies.

The so-called 'aspiring nurse directors' programme began early last year, following a series of investigations by Nursing Standard that revealed high vacancy rates for nurses at the top of NHS trusts.

A total of 11 nurses were selected for the challenging programme, which launched at London South Bank University and ran from April to October.

Future nurse directors

The course is a collaboration between NHS Improvement (NHSI) and Health Education England and aims to train participants for chief nurse roles within 12-18 months.


chief nurses, or 53%, had only been in post since 2014, according to a Nursing Standard analysis of 230 English NHS trusts, 14 Scottish and seven Welsh health boards in September last year.

NHSI director of nursing for senior leadership Jacqueline McKenna says the course has been designed to help support the many talented nurses and midwives working in the health service. The aim is to help prepare them for the challenges and responsibilities of becoming a director of nursing.

Ms McKenna says: 'With mounting pressure across the health sector, we looked at where we can help to make sure our future nurse leaders are prepared and have the confidence to carry their career forwards.

'It is crucial we play our part in securing our future workforce leaders, achieve their aims and support their teams better for years to come.'

Skills taught on the course included how to use data from clinical audits and other evidence bases to implement change, board participation, leadership styles and strategic thinking.

Guest speakers included England's chief nursing officer Jane Cummings, Nursing and Midwifery Council chief executive Jackie Smith, and NHSI executive director of nursing Ruth May.

Valuable preparation

Although no course graduates have yet taken on a chief nurse role, all of them say the programme has provided invaluable preparation.

Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust deputy chief nurse Dawn Parkes says the course has prepared its graduates, including herself, for the next step in their careers. 

'It helped raise the standard of CVs, covering letters and how to present yourself,' she says. 'I applied for a chief nurse post before I did the course, and when I compare my CV now with the one I wrote 18 months ago, I think "no wonder I didn't get shortlisted then".'


The number of days first-time directors of nursing will have help with planning, as well as mentor support.

Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust deputy chief nurse Victoria Daley says the course has put all of the participants in a stronger position to take on new roles.

Ms Daley, who is a trainee hot-air balloon pilot in her spare time and no stranger to upwards motion, says visibility and exposure were welcome by-products of being part of the programme.

South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust deputy director of nursing and patient safety Louise Burn agrees: 'I got such a lot out of the course, from networking to taking part in debate,' she says. 'There were many opportunities to meet people who could show you what they have done and how.'

Ms Burn adds that hearing from a range of speakers was useful. 'It wasn't just hearing the party line either, but what it is really like to be a chief nurse,' she says.

Changing landscape

Ms Daley says the role of chief nurse today is very different than it was five or ten years ago.

'Issues such as the introduction of sustainability and transformation plans and the number of trusts in special measures may affect the chief nurse's role,' she says. 'It is about how to respond to that, build resilience and promote nursing standards.'

Ms Burn agrees that STPs in particular have changed everything.


further leadership schemes have had funding secured, one for aspiring nurse directors and one for aspiring deputy nurse directors.

'There will be fewer director of nursing posts as organisations merge, so what will be our goal, if it is not to be in these posts in the next 12-18 months?’

The answer to that question, the deputy directors believe, may lie in becoming directors for sites within organisations as health and social care organisations merge to meet the future needs of local populations.

The long-term future of the role may be unclear, but in the short term there will be many opportunities for leadership. 

Next steps: working together 

The aspiring nurse directors who took part in the programme have decided to remain together for the next year, to provide peer support and help raise the profile of nursing. 

Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust deputy chief nurse Julie Tunney says they will act 'as a kind of clinical reference group', called the Nursing Thought Leadership Group.

She explains: 'We want to do things that are meaningful to other nurses and nurse directors.'

Deputy director of nursing at the former South Essex Partnership Trust Sarah Browne says nursing needs a higher profile. 

'We identified that the nursing voice was poor across the NHS,' she says, adding that events such as the chief nursing officer's summit have helped raise nurses' professional and public profile, but not by enough.

For Ms Parkes, there is one conclusive goal for the individuals involved.

'The ultimate outcome is to become directors of nursing within 12-18 months,' she says.

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