Nursing candidates should not be judged solely on A-level results, says healthcare academic

Martin Steggall says ‘the acquisition of A-levels isn’t necessarily a good proxy measure for being a good nurse'.

A-levels are not a good measure of what it takes to be a good nurse, a leading healthcare academic has said. 

Students receiving A-level results. Picture: Alamy

Speaking at the RCN Wales Leadership Summit in Cardiff last week, University of South Wales dean of life sciences and education Martin Steggall said universities need to be supported to widen access to nursing, if the future workforce is to be sustained.

The dean recalled a conversation in London with a group of chief nurses and academics four years ago, when he worked at City University.

Dr Steggall said: ‘It turned out none of the chief nurses or nursing academics would actually get on to a nursing programme of today.

‘They wouldn’t have the right A-levels to do so and indeed, a number had entered via the DC entry test [a former alternative entry to nursing]. And so it would suggest the acquisition of A-levels isn’t necessarily a good proxy measure for being a good nurse.’

Pressure of league tables

But Dr Steggall added that universities are a business and are ‘under enormous pressure’ to perform well in league tables.

‘I can increase my league table position overnight by increasing the entry tariff. But if I increase it, I shut out an entire group of potential practitioners into nursing and I think we need to recognise this is a real area of tension.’

Tariffs are the points used by universities to judge a person’s academic ability, and include A-levels, BTECs and baccalaureates.

Dr Steggall continued: ‘In London they increased their entry tariff and this shifted the demographic of entrant. They used to be, on average, 25- to 35-year-old females with children, but boosting the tariff to three A-levels has led to typical entrants being 18 year olds.’

Widening the entry pool

He said it was wrong to assume everybody’s life chances are the same and that academic attainment at school is the only marker of ability.

In Wales, the academic said the Welsh Government had supported universities to run ‘decelerated programmes’, which allow healthcare assistants and other staff to ‘earn while they learn’ on 18-hour-a-week courses.

Dr Steggall said retaining the bursary was vital to recruiting more mature students, those with families to support and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

‘I think this is critical in terms of maintaining the nursing workforce in the future,’ he concluded.

Speaking at the summit, Welsh cabinet secretary for education Kirsty Williams said it was important to realise that being a ‘student’ does not mean being an 18- or 19-year-old school leaver, and that people should be able to access higher education at different stages of their life.

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