The NHS and the English Language Test

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Published: 25 Jun 2017      

Recent reports have emerged claiming that the difficulty of the government’s English proficiency test is making it more difficult than ever for the NHS to fill vacant nursing roles. Some even go so far as to say that native speakers who are educated to a high level have been struggling to pass the exam.

The key takeaway statistic from the report relates to the number of EU citizens applying for nursing roles in the UK. The report states that there has been a massive drop in monthly registrations with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, from over 1,300 in July 2016, down to less than 50 in May 2017. The report notes that the difficulty of the English language test may be playing a major role in that shortfall.

According to Stephen Burke, who heads a leading medical recruiter in the United Kingdom, this shortfall in registrations is not due to fewer people applying for nursing roles in the UK. In fact, as many people as before are applying. However, the difficulty of the language test is acting as a major barrier. Even those applying from English-speaking countries, such as Australia, are struggling to pass the test.

Other Reasons

Now, it must be noted that the language test isn’t the only barrier standing in the way of EU nurses. Many are wary of lodging applications because of the uncertainty that has been caused by Brexit, even though all sides of the argument tend to agree that the NHS and nursing, in general, would suffer greatly without the influx of international applicants who enter the profession.

Couple that with the scrapping of the English nursing training bursary and it appears that the NHS may be slowly being forced towards a tipping point when it comes to the nursing situation. Some argue that the organization is already on the precipice thanks to what could be perceived as Draconian measures that prevent otherwise qualified professionals from entering the profession.

The Scale of the Problem

The nursing shortage is no small problem. In fact, it has been growing in recent years. Back in 2013, the NHS as a whole has a nursing vacancy rate of approximately 6%. This almost doubled between 2013 and 2016, hitting 11.1%. Beyond that, nearly 25% of NHS trusts are trying to fill nursing vacancies of over 15%, suggesting that the crisis is worsening as time goes on. At the time of writing, there are almost 7,000 nursing positions available in the United Kingdom, many of which have been available for a number of months.

The Test Structure

So we come back to the English test. It examines a candidate’s proficiency in speaking, writing, reading, and listening. Each section is given a grade out of 9, with passing candidates required to score a minimum of 7 on each test to make the cut.

Unfortunately, the test offers little in the way of feedback for those who fail and is perhaps too general in nature to actually cover the complexities of the nursing profession.

In all, it is one element among several that appears to play a part in the nursing shortage the NHS is currently facing.

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