NMC overhauls English requirements for overseas nurses

In a move it describes as ‘common sense’, the Nursing and Midwifery Council has announced an overhaul of English language requirements for overseas nurses.

In a move it describes as ‘common sense’, the Nursing and Midwifery Council has announced an overhaul of English language requirements for overseas nurses

Picture: Alamy

Language requirements for overseas nurses are to be overhauled, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has announced.

In a move described as ‘common sense’ by NMC chief executive Jackie Smith, all overseas nurses and midwives trained and examined in English, or practising in it, will no longer have to sit English language tests before applying to join the UK register.

Others will be allowed to take an alternative test to demonstrate their English language ability, following criticisms of the current testing methods.

Earlier this year, Nursing Standard reported that Australian nurses were finding it difficult to pass the language exams adopted by the NMC, despite English being their native language.

Currently, only applicants from the European Economic Area (EEA) who are trained and practising in English, such nurses from the Republic of Ireland, are exempt from sitting language tests.

What changes mean

But changes that come into force from 1 November mean:

  • Nurses from overseas who have practised for a minimum of one year in a country where English is the first and native language, and where they passed a test to register, can apply to join the NMC register without sitting further language tests.
  • Those trained and examined on pre-registration courses taught in English will be also be exempt from further testing.

Until now, non-English trained and practising nurses from the EEA or elsewhere have been required to pass International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams.

These exams have been criticised as too academic and many employers struggling to recruit nurses have called for the pass mark of 7 to be lowered to 6.5.

Bespoke test

NMC chief executive Jackie Smith has been clear the language testing exists to protect the public and has repeatedly said the IELTS pass mark will not be lowered.

But as part of the changes, the regulator says a test called the Occupational English Test (OET) will also be accepted from November.

The OET is a bespoke test for healthcare professionals, including speaking and writing sections designed specifically for nurses and midwives.

Ms Smith told Nursing Standard: ‘It provides clinical context, and some people say that will be easier to relate to. It’s comparable to the IELTS and matches against the standards. We are not lowering the score.’

The OET pass mark will be B, equivalent to 7.0 in IELTS.

Continued review

Ms Smith said it was too early to say what the effect of the changes will be, but the NMC will continue to review the situation.

Responding to the announcement, OET chief executive Sujata Stead said its exams include real-life scenarios.

‘For example, a nurse’s speaking skills will be assessed via a face-to-face role play using a typical nursing scenario, with a trained interlocutor who plays the part of a patient or carer.’

Peter Rodway, director of education provider Specialist Language Courses, said the move could result an increase in overseas nurses wanting to work in the UK. ‘I strongly believe that any training nurses receive regards OET will prepare them much better to communicate at work than when studying for IELTS,’ he said.

Invest in workforce

RCN general secretary Janet Davies welcomed the decision, praising the NMC for increasing its flexibility while maintaining standards.

'Evidence submitted to the NMC shows that recognising language testing options comparable to IELTS, as is the case in many other English-speaking countries, presents no known negative effect on patient care.

'However, we want to see robust, published data released about all of these options so the system can be properly monitored.

'We have a pressing shortage of registered nurses across the UK. Dilution of any standards is not the way to fill gaps. It is the role of government to properly invest in our workforce, including lifting the pay cap and putting laws in place for safe and effective staffing in each UK country.'

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