Anne Eaton, education adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, examines the two halves of pre-registration nurse training

Believe it or not, despite negative reporting in the press and a lot of hard work, nurse training is fun.

Groups of students develop together and enjoy life in universities and in hospitals. It isn't easy, but what is? I'm sure you've found your studies so far have posed problems, with deadlines for assignments, other commitments and a lack of money. But I'm sure you can also talk positively about your colleagues, about good lessons and lectures and about enjoying learning!

Pre-registration courses

All individuals intending to become qualified nurses have to undertake a pre-registration nursing programme. Run by universities, these programmes lead to registration as a nurse (or midwife) with either a diploma in higher education or a first degree, often in nursing or health studies.

The programmes usually last three years and include 2,300 hours of theory and 2,300 hours of practice, with both components assessed throughout the programme. Experience is undertaken in a variety of care settings, including hospitals, community settings and nursing homes.

The three-year course is divided into two halves of 18 months:

The first half, the Common Foundation Programme or CFP, is undertaken by all students, regardless of branch choice. It includes core issues and topics, together with experience of a wide variety of care environments

The second half, the branch programme, concentrates on specific branch subjects and practice placements

Potential students need to investigate the area of nursing which they would like to study and ultimately work in, as the choice of branch for the second half of the programme usually has to be made upon application. However, some universities enable students to make a more informed choice after they have started. The branch choices include adults, learning disabilities, children and mental health; there is also the opportunity to enter midwifery as a first qualification. (In the past, applicants needed to be registered nurses, entering midwifery as a second qualification).

Major changes are currently being piloted in 16 sites in England, altering the structure of pre-registration programmes to a 12-month CFP and a 24-month branch programme. The choice of branches remains the same.

Entry requirements

The baseline entry criteria to the programmes are set by the United Kingdom Central Council (UKCC) as five GCSE passes at grade C and above or equivalent (this includes NVQ level 3). However, universities also set their own entry criteria, which may be higher than those of the UKCC. Individuals are therefore advised to contact the university of their choice to check on the exact requirements.

Nursing students are being integrated more fully into university life, though they do undertake a longer academic year in order to complete the practice placements. Nursing students, unlike students on other programmes, do not have to pay tuition fees and receive a bursary of around £5,000 per annum (depending upon location and allowances), which is not subject to income tax. Currently, this bursary does not apply to degree-level students, who can access a means-tested bursary.

Employment prospects

At the end of the programme, all successful students can register with the UKCC and practise as registered nurses or midwives. The starting salary for a newly qualified nurse is £15,445 per annum within the NHS (April 2001). Employment prospects depend on the individual and where they want to work but there is no problem at present accessing employment as a registered nurse in the UK.

There is a shortage of registered nurses in all disciplines and, even if permanent employment is not available, most hospitals and a number of nursing homes run "nurse banks", which may be a useful way of testing the environment while also earning.

Most employers encourage and support their staff to keep up to date, expecting them to access programmes or further experience to maintain their knowledge and skills. Some employers support study financially or through study leave.

An autonomous profession

Nursing is hard work; throughput of patients, especially in acute hospitals, is constantly increasing. Hospital wards are now all "high dependency units" due to the shorter stay of patients, putting constant pressure on all staff. Nursing homes now have more acutely ill patients, with multiple pathologies and care needs presenting constant challenges to all concerned. Having said that, nursing is still developing as an individual, autonomous profession, no longer in the shadow of the other medical professions and definitely worth further exploration!

NHS Careers, PO Box 376, Bristol BS99 3EY Tel: 0845 6060655 Email:

United Kingdom Central, Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting, 23 Portland Place London W1N 4JT Tel: 020 7637 7181

Department of Health, Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, London SW1A 2NS Tel: 0800 665544