Right of Reply: The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing replies to criticism of nurse education

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NURSES ARE newsy. Debates about their pay, even the uniforms they wear, prompt strong public reaction. Now, from your reports earlier this month, it's the turn of nurses' education - which is being blamed for poor patient care.

We refute this, pointing out that the worst nurse shortages for 25 years are the real threat to patient care.

But it's right and proper that nurse education is discussed. It's ten years since the move into higher education, and today 90 per cent of student nurses study for an HE diploma - also referred to as Project 2000 students - and 10 percent follow degree courses. All students split their time equally between theory and practice. (Before the shift into HE, the division was 60 per cent practice and 40 per cent theory.)

Their education has been designed to reflect the demands of the modern NHS where about a quarter of nurses work in the community and those based in hospitals deal with more dependent patients.

The Government's vision for the health service requires new ways of working. If you consider that 80 per cent of hands-on patient care is provided by nurses, then quality can only be improved by motivated nurses with the ability to think for themselves and the confidence to challenge poor patient care.

What of the criticism that nurse education is too academic, putting off potential recruits? The minimum require- ments haven't changed. You need five GCSEs, an S/NVQ level 3 or GNVQ advanced: many maturer students now enter courses without traditional qualifications. There's also the argument that nurses are too academic to care. A wealth of evidence proves that where nurses have stronger theoretical skills they provide higher quality care.