How a school nurse could help your child
Think of a school nurse, and your mind probably conjures up images of a Malory Towers-style matron, administering spoonsful of foul-tasting medicine to sickly schoolgirls. But role of the modern-day school nurse is far more diverse than most of us realise.
There are over 2,600 school nurses working in the NHS, most of them covering several schools. But despite the important part they play in looking after school-age children’s health, the school nursing service has seen significant budget cuts, and a 13 per cent reduction in the number of nurses, in recent years.
So what does a school nurse actually do, and when might you and your child see one?
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The role of the school nurse
Many of us assume that school nurses are there to put plasters on grazed knees and tend to children who are feeling sick, but in fact, the day-to-day job of looking after kids who are hurt or unwell at school isn’t part of their job description. These tasks fall to members of school staff who are trained in first aid and/or managing medications.
Rather, the aim of the school nurse is to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent illness among school-age children. ‘School nurses are the key people linking education and health,’ explains Claire Elwell, a school nurse and spokesperson for the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association. ‘We take over from the health visitor when children start school, and are there to support them until they leave school at 19.’
School nurses are qualified registered nurses who have completed an additional specialist qualification in community public health.
What do school nurses help with?
School nurses are among the many health professionals providing services to young people in accordance with the Government’s Healthy Child 5-19 programme, which covers six key areas: resilience and emotional wellbeing, improving lifestyles, reducing risky behaviours, maximising learning and achievement, supporting complex needs, and seamless transition to adulthood.
They support children with a wide range of physical and mental health issues. The problems that they can help with include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Divorce and separation
- Eating disorders
- Mental health problems including anxiety, depression, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- School phobia and school refusal
- Sleep problems
- Behavioural issues including ADHD
- Wetting and soiling
As well as helping children with specific issues, school nurses see all children at certain points of their school journey to carry out routine checks. In Reception, for example, they screen children for hearing problems and weigh them as part of the NHS Healthy Weight programme.
In some areas, school nurses carry out the immunisations that are done in schools, such as the flu vaccination and school leavers’ boosters, although in other areas these are performed by a separate immunisations team.
School nurses also play an important role in teaching children about health and healthy living. ‘We go into Year 5 and 6 to talk about puberty and preparing for secondary school, and do assemblies on subjects ranging from hand-washing to exam stress,’ Claire explains. In secondary schools, they educate students about the issues they face as teenagers, including sexual health and mental health.
In addition, school nurses have a safeguarding responsibility. They are alert to signs of neglect and abuse, and have a duty to report any concerns they may have.
Where do school nurses work?
It’s very rare, at least in the state sector, for primary schools to have their own school nurse based on site. More commonly, a school nurse will be based outside the school, for example in a health centre, and look after a number of different schools. They visit each school as and when needed, although some school nurses run weekly drop-in sessions in secondary schools where students can approach them with any issues they want to talk about.
How school nurses support families
The school nurse will often be your first port of call if your child has a physical or mental health issue. They tend to provide what’s known as ‘level one care'. ‘This means that we’ll often speak to a family in the first instance, for example by giving them advice on toileting issues, but then if the problem doesn’t resolve we can refer them on to a specialist, such as a continence nurse,’ Claire explains.
School nurses also work closely with the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) and pastoral staff, providing a link between education and health. ‘We’re there to help and support families, act as an interpreter when there are health or behavioural issues to discuss, and put plans in place to help children cope with school,’ Claire says.
How school nurses support schools
As well as working with families, school nurses are there to support schools in looking after their pupils’ needs. ‘For example, we provide teachers with training in areas such as how to use an epipen and how to deal with an asthma attack,’ Claire says.
Contacting your school nurse
You may be put in touch with your school nurse by a staff member at your child’s school, such as the SENCO, if they notice an issue that would benefit from some professional input. You can also contact your school nurse directly, by asking the school or by going through your local NHS trust.
‘Unlike health visitors, we don’t go out and do routine home visits, but if you need us, you just need to ring us, and we’ll be there,’ Claire says.