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Exclusive: Nearly 1,400 overseas nurses fail English language tests

Almost 1,400 overseas nurses who applied to work in the UK in the past two years have failed their English language tests, Nursing Standard can reveal.
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Almost 1,400 overseas nurses who applied to work in the UK in the past two years have failed their English language tests, Nursing Standard can reveal.

Figures obtained by Nursing Standard from 78 NHS employers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reveal that in the two years to April, 601 overseas applicants passed, 1,384 failed and 748 people retook the International English Language Test System (IELTS) exams.

This includes those already working in non-registered nurse roles and those wanting to join NHS organisations.

The IELTS exam requirements were introduced in 2007 for overseas nurses wanting to join the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register, and were extended last year to cover nurses trained in the European Economic Area (EEA).

To pass, applicants must achieve a mark of 7 out of 9 in four areas: writing, reading, listening and speaking English.

Almost 1,400 overseas nurses who applied to work in the UK in the past two years have failed their English language tests, Nursing Standard can reveal.

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Picture: Alamy

Figures obtained by Nursing Standard from 78 NHS employers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reveal that in the two years to April, 601 overseas applicants passed, 1,384 failed and 748 people retook the International English Language Test System (IELTS) exams.

This includes those already working in non-registered nurse roles and those wanting to join NHS organisations.

The IELTS exam requirements were introduced in 2007 for overseas nurses wanting to join the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register, and were extended last year to cover nurses trained in the European Economic Area (EEA).

To pass, applicants must achieve a mark of 7 out of 9 in four areas: writing, reading, listening and speaking English.

Organisations struggling to recruit staff have questioned the threshold, and some critics say the tests are too academic.

Evidence

An NMC report as part of a 'stocktake' of evidence on the exams found there was no compelling evidence why it should reduce the required score.

An estimated three million IELTS tests are taken every year worldwide.

Analysis by healthcare recruitment agency HCL in March revealed that of 848 non-EEA candidates it supported, 694 failed the exams.

Nursing Standard received data from 72 trusts in England, five health boards in Wales and one health and social care board in Northern Ireland under Freedom of Information laws.

Our investigation revealed that English trusts spent an average £498 per candidate on pre-test training or covering the cost of re-sits.

Standards

Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust reported that 255 out of 272 candidates failed, including 134 nurses from the Philippines.

Director of nursing at the trust Joy Godden said: ‘This is not a debate about whether standards should be compromised.

'However, there should be a discussion about the requirement for overseas nurses to demonstrate written English skills to a master’s level, when most colleagues training in this country enter the profession at degree level.’

Alex Melia, director of Swoosh English, a tuition company that provides IELTS training to nurses, said: ‘The IELTS exams are a real barrier stopping excellent nurses from coming here to ease the staffing crisis.

‘Our research shows Filipino nurses are struggling the most. They take an average of four written tests before they pass. Lowering the pass mark even to 6.5 would allow about 40% more nurses to qualify.’

Communication

The Patients Association has previously argued against lowering the standards, last year highlighting patient concerns about overseas nurses, including communication problems.

Responding to Nursing Standard’s findings, the charity’s head of policy John Kell said: ‘It is obviously important that English language skills among health and social care professionals should be sufficient to ensure they are able to deliver care to a high standard.’

A spokesperson for the NMC said: ‘This (stocktake) has highlighted a number of areas where we could extend our current policy to applicants trained outside the UK wanting to join our register and more closely align evidence requirements for all non-UK applicants.

‘We are currently consulting on this and there will be a further update on this work at our next council meeting on 27 September.’


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