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NMC agrees to explore changes to English language tests

Additional support for candidates preparing for exams and a review of the written test are among recommendations to improve the International English Language Test System (IELTS).

The pass level for nurses and midwifes sitting English language tests is not set too high, a review by the Nursing and Midwifery Council has concluded

The NMC said there was 'no compelling evidence' that International English Language Test System (IELTS) exams, which are sat by applicants from in and outside Europe, are too advanced.

However, the council has agreed to provide additional support to candidates and consider other testing methods.

Pass mark

IELTS require a pass mark of 7.0 in all four areas of English proficiency; writing, reading, listening and speaking.

The pass threshold has been criticised by senior nurses and healthcare organisations struggling to recruit staff, leading the NMC to announce in May it was going to stocktake

The pass level for nurses and midwifes sitting English language tests is not set too high, a review by the Nursing and Midwifery Council has concluded


The pass mark threshold for English language tests has been deemed as sufficient. Picture: Alamy

The NMC said there was 'no compelling evidence' that International English Language Test System (IELTS) exams, which are sat by applicants from in and outside Europe, are too advanced.

However, the council has agreed to provide additional support to candidates and consider other testing methods.

Pass mark

IELTS require a pass mark of 7.0 in all four areas of English proficiency; writing, reading, listening and speaking.

The pass threshold has been criticised by senior nurses and healthcare organisations struggling to recruit staff, leading the NMC to announce in May it was going to ‘stocktake’ its IELTS procedure.

In a report from NMC officers to their decision-making council today they state: 'So far (it) has provided no compelling evidence that the IELTS is not fit for purpose, or that the level is set too high.'

The council approved recommendations including:

  • Improving support to candidates before they sit IELTS and sharing best practice from employers.
  • Explore replacing IELTS with a different test; possibly the Occupational English Test, which has different pass marks.
  • Review the written element of IELTS.
  • Conduct work with patient and public groups to understand their views.

The stocktake has been welcomed by the organisation HCL Workforce Solutions, authors of a report called IELTS and Declining Nursing Recruitment: Don’t Blame Brexit.

‘No clear evidence’

HCL's report claims there is ‘no clear evidence’ why the current pass mark was chosen. It reveals 694 of 848 IELTS candidates failed to get the required score across all four areas, and claims 340 of those would have passed if an average score of 7.0 was accepted.

HCL's international operations manager Teresa Wilson, and co-author of the report said: 'Language testing is an essential part of recruiting overseas nurses, but it is important that the qualifying criteria is fair, and does not hold back suitably qualified nurses from working in our over-stretched NHS.

'We will be recommending NMC adjust the qualifying criteria to one that requires an average score of 7 but a minimum score of 6.5 across all sections – protecting the overall requirement for strong English language skills, but taking more accounts of the vocational nature of a nurse’s job.'


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