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Alternate English language tests to IELTS may soon be accepted by NMC

The Nursing and Midwifery Council has moved a step closer to accepting alternative methods of assessing a nurse’s ability to speak English.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has moved a step closer to accepting alternative methods of assessing a nurse’s ability to speak English.


Picture: iStock

When deciding on whether to allow nurses from the European Economic Area (EEA) and overseas to join its register, the NMC recognises only the International English Language Test System (IELTS).

The IELTS, which is administered by the British Council, tests English ability in writing, speaking, listening and reading. The NMC requires an overall pass score of 7.

Today, however, NMC council members voted unanimously to accept recommendations made following the first round of the regulator’s ongoing assessment of the requirements.

The vote gives NMC chair Janet Finch and chief executive Jackie Smith authority to approve two changes to the language test process. These are:

  • Accepting other language tests in addition to IELTS, providing they meet current criteria.
  • Aligning language requirements of overseas applicants with those of EEA applicants.

One possible alternative test is the so-called Occupational English Test (OET), which NMC officers have been examining.

Writing in the official council papers they say: ‘Our initial examination indicates the OET matches our criteria, will not negatively impact on patients, and may be a preferred choice for some nurses and midwives because it tests English in a nursing and healthcare context.’

Written tests

One of the main criticisms of IELTS is its use of an academic model, particularly for the written test, which requires nurses to write to the level of a university thesis.

At the meeting, NMC director of registration and revalidation Emma Broadbent outlined benefits for overseas applicants in expanding EEA requirements to include them.

These benefits would include they would no longer have to sit IELTS – or any other – exams, provided their pre-registration programme was taught and examined in English.

Alternatively the tests could be waived if they had already completed two or more years of registered practice under a nursing or midwifery regulator in a country where English is the first and native language.

‘Fair and proportionate’

Ms Broadbent added: ‘We believe these are proportionate and fair proposals.’

The NMC accepts adopting the proposals would likely increase international applications and estimates it would cost £145,300 to cover IT changes and additional staffing.

As part of the stocktake, officers have been consulting with organisations including patients groups, unions and other regulators.

Dame Janet and Ms Smith now have the authority to sign off the changes as part of revised policy and guidance before the next council meeting in November.

‘Unreasonably high’

NHS Professionals director of international healthcare Georgina Dwight said the current IELTS pass score was ‘set unreasonably high’ and indicated her organisation favoured a lowering of the score to 6.5.

However, Ms Smith explained during her appearance at the QNI conference earlier this week that lowering the score was not an option.

Future work includes developing additional support for applicants and specifically exploring the written element of the IELTS exam.


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