Career advice

Clinical nurse educator: the role that brings learning to the bedside

Clinical educators are vital to improving nursing care, but they can feel isolated in the workplace – which is where the CNENET nurse network comes in
two nurses confer on a ward

Clinical educators are vital to improving nursing care, but they can feel isolated in the workplace which is where the CNENET nurse network comes in

Clinical nurse educators are practice-based nurses whose primary role is educating the workforce.

While they might once have been considered a luxury for an organisation, they are becoming increasingly important in todays healthcare services.

In the past, these posts would often be on short-term contracts to deal with a specific need, but this created a roller-coaster ride, with everything going downhill again once things had been resolved, says head of the nursing department at the University of Derby Bill Whitehead, who has carried out extensive research in this area.

Bill Whitehead, nurse academic and secretary of CNENET

Its common sense that they should be part of an organisations infrastructure. They need to

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Clinical educators are vital to improving nursing care, but they can feel isolated in the workplace – which is where the CNENET nurse network comes in


Picture: iStock

Clinical nurse educators are practice-based nurses whose primary role is educating the workforce.

While they might once have been considered a luxury for an organisation, they are becoming increasingly important in today’s healthcare services. 

‘In the past, these posts would often be on short-term contracts to deal with a specific need, but this created a roller-coaster ride, with everything going downhill again once things had been resolved,’ says head of the nursing department at the University of Derby Bill Whitehead, who has carried out extensive research in this area.


Bill Whitehead, nurse academic
and secretary of CNENET

‘It’s common sense that they should be part of an organisation’s infrastructure. They need to be embedded.’

Clinical nurse educators can feel out on a limb in their organisation

But nurses in this kind of role often face professional isolation, says Dr Whitehead. ‘If you’re a university lecturer, there are lots of conferences you can attend where you can meet colleagues. But for these staff, who are working for an employer whose primary function is not education, there aren’t those opportunities.’

Liz Allibone, head of clinical education and training at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, agrees. ‘Sometimes a clinical nurse educator can be the only person in an organisation or division doing this role, so who else can they talk to who has the same job?’ she says.

Network where nurses can share ideas and best practice 

After deciding to work together to overcome these difficulties, Dr Whitehead and Ms Allibone set up CNENET, the UK’s only national network for clinical nurse educators five years ago.

Today the network has more than 800 members. It is free to join but members must have roles that provide education, training and support in clinical practice. With more than 100 job titles represented in the network, some members work at the bedside with patients to support staff educationally, others are managers.

‘If you’re asked to do something and don’t know where to start, you can ask members and pretty quickly you’ll get a whole load of suggestions’

Liz Allibone, CNENET chair

‘There’s a massive range in what they’re involved with, with no national consensus on what people do,’ says Dr Whitehead, who is the network’s secretary. Often, they are supporting newly qualified nurses on preceptorship programmes and involved with student activities. Revalidation and professional development are key tasks. 

Taking education to where the nursing happens


Liz Allibone, a head of clinical
education and chair of CNENET

For Liz Allibone, the attractions of clinical nurse educator roles are many. ‘It’s seeing people grow and develop, because you’re giving them core skills,’ she says. ‘It’s also about being where nursing is happening. You’re in front of your patients, delivering and demonstrating expert care. Nurse education is also constantly changing, so it keeps you on your toes. It’s a great combination.’

Career pathways vary with employers, says Bill Whitehead. ‘People move into these posts for all kinds of reasons,’ he says. ‘There isn’t a simple career structure.’

Although it may be a way into an academic career for some, Dr Whitehead says his research showed practice learning roles should be considered equivalent to those in academia, rather than mere stepping stones.

‘We shouldn’t have a hierarchy where theoretical learning is considered to be of higher value than practical,’ he says. ‘Being able to do things is at least equally valuable to knowing them.’

Nurses wanting to pursue a career in this field should have demonstrable clinical expertise, be flexible, appreciate how education is changing and have good people management skills, advises Ms Allibone.

‘It’s also about understanding the bigger picture, such as why you are teaching someone something, and what other initiatives might be coming your way,’ she says. ‘You’re not just teaching for now – you’re teaching for the future.’


Strong, collective voice that boosts recognition of its professional group    

Among the benefits of CNENET is the opportunity it affords members to swap experience and knowledge with colleagues who are doing similar work. Social media accounts help members seek advice from their peers, and two face-to-face meetings are organised annually.

‘You can share resources,’ says Ms Allibone, the network’s chair. ‘If you’re asked to do something, such as draft a protocol, and don’t know where to start, you can ask members and pretty quickly you’ll get a whole load of suggestions. It saves time and gives you access to best practice.’

The network gives members a stronger platform, she believes. ‘Sometimes work filters down to them – they may not be asked their opinion and they’re not sitting at the top table.

‘But collectively, as a network, we are listened to, and we can say we don’t agree,’ adds Ms Allibone. ‘Before the network began, no one recognised this staff group and it wasn’t mentioned as much as it is now.’

Network events and workshops are held at different workplaces around the country, drawing up to 80 members each time. These sessions generally focus on hot topics, such as the changes in preregistration nursing education, and often include presentations from leading nurses or from organisations including the Nursing and Midwifery Council, Health Education England and the NHS. 

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Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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