Bring back the school nurse

The school nurse
The school nurse 

Typical schoolyard woes used to be bumps, colds, scrapes and scratches. But with diabetes, obesity, asthma and dangerous allergies increasingly common, the Australian Nursing Federation is calling for the return of school nurses to their traditional place in the education system.

The latest published figures show a slight rise in the total number of nurses in Victorian schools - but a significant drop in the number in the public system.

"The benefits of having a permanent school nurse are extraordinary, but we are still seeing numbers drop away," said ANF federal secretary Ged Kearney.

"On the national level the Government is talking about reforming the health system and tackling childhood obesity - but nobody has thought of something as simple as a nurse in every primary and secondary school."

One school community, Wales Street Primary in Thornbury, has taken matters into its own hands. Parents of students recently contributed to a fund that helped pay for a permanent nurse, Catherine Fisers, who works from 11 to 3 each day.

"She's just fabulous, she's made such a big difference already," said principal Chris Sexton.

"We had too many different people involved in looking after the children's health - roster teachers and office staff with other responsibilities. (Ms Fisers) is a professional, she can give a better diagnosis for cough, colds and flu, she has that extra knowledge and time."

Ms Fisers, 44, used to be an intensive care nurse at a major hospital, but left the system to raise children. On her return to work she wanted to combine her nursing skills with educational and maternal elements.

"The health problems that children are having these days are so much more serious," she said.

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"It's not just Betadine on knees, it's early-onset diabetes, asthma and anaphylaxis on the rise. I think nurses should be in all primary schools."

While chronic disease is spreading and needs knowledgeable care, bumps, bruises, headaches and stomach aches still dominate the queue for her little clinic.

She is also helping get preventive health programs into top gear, making sure that nutrition and exercise are top priorities - she asks each young visitor how much water they are drinking, and whether they had breakfast.

There is also the opportunity to spot psychological issues.

Ms Kearney said school nursing was a perfect option for some of the 30,000 nurses who have kept their registration but no longer work in the health system.

A report published in January by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found there were 241 nurses in public schools and 138 in private schools in Victoria in 2005. The year before, there were 272 in public schools and 102 in private schools.

The Victorian Government set aside $6.5 million in the latest budget for a school nursing program, in which nurses visit schools to test hearing and vision, and assess the health of first-year students. But schools must find room in their own budget if they want a permanent nurse.