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Charlotte Leslie MP: What the Royal College of Nursing can learn from the teaching unions

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 11.44.58Charlotte Leslie is Member of Parliament for Bristol North West. Follow Charlotte on Twitter.

On Monday, the Royal College of Nursing Congress voted, by an overwhelming majority, to keep its dual status – as both a Royal College, selflessly promoting excellent practice with a focus on welfare of patients, and at the same time as a Union, promoting and protecting the welfare and interest of its members.

Not all Royal Colleges are like this. The Royal College of Surgeons and of Physicians, for example, are adamant that they should never take on any Union role, and keep interests of the practitioners completely separate from the function of the Royal College, which, they argue, should have a single, and relentless focus on quality of practice, of care, and patients.  The intention is that the voice of a Royal College to the public is simply: “It’s all about you”.

The Francis Report, looking into how up to 1200 excess deaths occurred at Mid Staffs, had recommended that the Royal College of Nursing break off this dual function, to become solely focused on excellent nursing and care standards, with a relentless patient, not practitioner focus. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has just rejected this.

Of course, every institution has an inbuilt reluctance for change, and it is easy to see how and why the Royal College of Nursing would be resistant to altering its role. But I fear that this decision has missed a valuable opportunity for nurses and the nursing profession as a whole.

Nursing has traditionally been a highly respected vocation, and nurses are valued and indeed loved by the general public. In recent years, however, this long-held respect for this invaluable profession has begun to erode.  The reasons for this may be complex, but certainly many older nurses, or retired nurses, say that current nursing is very different from the profession in their day, (and I have yet to meet any former nurse who says it has changed for the better – particularly if you are a patient.)

The recurring theme from older nurses is that the priority put on human compassion and care has become somehow lost in a more academicised idea of what ‘modern’ nursing should be.  Indeed, I have met many who have left nursing because they did not feel they could work in this incoming culture.  But whatever the reasons for this erosion of the status of nursing, it would be sad if it were to continue, for both nurses and their patients who need trust and respect for those caring for them.

So how stop this erosion of the status of nursing?  Many former nurses would say that we need a good hard look at what we are now expecting from nursing, and the kinds of skills we think nursing now requires.  That’s a project in its own right, which the Secretary of State has rightly embarked upon, and an article for another day. But if we just look at the structure of a Royal College, the RCN could possibly take some tips from the Unions in Teaching.

For over a year, I have been working with the teaching profession and the Princes Teaching Institute to look at the creation of a Royal College of Teaching. Although teaching is surely one of the most valuable professions to society, it has sadly fallen far behind other professions in respect and status. The idea is that a professional body, such as a Royal College of Teaching, would raise the status of teaching by providing a single body solely focussed on excellent teaching practice.  The important element the majority of the teaching unions recognise is that the very merit of a Royal College is in the fact it does not have a union function, but compliments the function of other unions.

Unions have a very valid role in protecting their members from unfair employment practice, and in promoting their case for pay and conditions. In supporting the creation of a Royal College of Teaching, many teaching unions are rightly recognising that their role is actually facilitated by a separate professional body which is able to demonstrate to the general public that it is solely focussed on excellent teaching practice, and the pupil – without the complicating factors of members’ own interests.

The teaching profession is building momentum in its bid to raise the status of teaching, by working together to relentlessly improve standards and the professional ethos of teachers through a Royal College. In the future, I hope that with the help of a Royal College of Teaching, teachers will be held in the esteem they deserve. It would be a tragedy if at the same time the professional status of teaching has risen, that of nursing had fallen and eroded. Perhaps the Royal College of Nursing could look at what teachers and their unions are doing for their profession in order to ensure that nursing and nurses remain publically respected and loved as the trusted, caring professionals we would all want to see - and reconsider its decision to hang onto a union function at all costs. 


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