NMC Alters IELTS Exam Requirement for Nurses Trained Outside UK

Foreign nurses who wish to register in the United Kingdom now have options besides the International English Language Test System (IELTS) to demonstrate proficiency in English. The change was announced by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) on October 18 and will be in effect from November 1. This development was in response to a sharp drop in the number of foreign nurses employed in the UK and a strong lobby from employers and recruitment agencies.

“Nurses and midwives trained outside the UK make up around 15 percent of our register. They are vital to the delivery of health and care services across the UK,” said Jackie Smith, Chief Executive and Registrar of the NMC. “By accepting alternative forms of evidence, we are increasing the options available for nurses and midwives to demonstrate they have the necessary command of English to practise safely and effectively, without compromising patient safety.”

Nurses from other countries will now be able to take the Occupational English Test (OET). This test is viewed as less academic and more applicable to the environment in which nurses’ work, with scenarios and terms which nurses can relate to. Other evidence of competency in English, which previously applied only to nurses from the European Union, has now been extended to nurses from outside the EU. This includes either proof of having completed a pre-registration nursing qualification and examinations in English, or proof of having registered and practiced for at least one year in a country where English is the native language and having passed an English language test for registration.

These changes followed a severe drop in recruitment of foreign nurses and widespread reports of nurses failing to obtain the required score of 7 on each of the listening, reading, writing and speaking sections of the IELTS test. Even some graduate, native English speaking, nurses failed this test, as reported in The Guardian. A recent report by the BBC revealed that nearly 90% of Filipino nurses had failed the test after being screened for proficiency in English before they were offered a job at Medway Maritime Hospital in Kent.

The changes were introduced by the NMC after having engaged in an extensive consultation process with various health service and recruitment stakeholders.  They plan to continue assessing other available English Language tests to add to the list of options. While the NMC reported that public safety is their priority and that they, therefore, had to ensure that nurses were able to communicate effectively with clients and co-workers in all settings, “We also want to make sure that the standards we set are fair and do not create unnecessary barriers for those who want to work in the UK.”

A major drawback is that the cost of the OET might be out of reach for some nurses. The OET costs considerably more than the IELTS and test centers are also not as widely available, which will add further transport and accommodation costs. The administrators of OET have, however, indicated that they would be prepared to open additional test centers if there is sufficient demand.

The “Guidance on registration language requirements” document of the NMC contains the complete information for nurses who wish to register in the UK.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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