Once schoolchildren dreaded the annual ritual of lining up to be checked for head lice or jabbed with the latest inoculation. Today the school nurse has jettisoned her starchy old image and presents a far friendlier face to pupils. Brian Ellis meets two in Penwortham.
We called her Nitty Nora and she cut a terrifying figure in her starched white coat waiting to rummage through our hair.
But the “bug explorer” is no more. Today’s school nurse is more accustomed to looking for bullying issues or relationship problems in children than she is head lice.
“That image is long gone,” laughed Lynn Pinder who started school nursing back in 1998 and still gets a buzz from her “dream job” almost two decades later.
“I can remember lining up in the school hall to have my hair checked.
“But we’re not Nitty Noras anymore. We don’t even do the head lice thing. We tend to leave that to parents, although we are always available to advise and help.”
Lynn is based in South Ribble, looking after schools in Penwortham and Bamber Bridge. Her team has three school nurses, three staff nurses and a healthcare support worker. Between them they combine experience in adult, psychiatric and children’s nursing, as well as midwifery.
And as the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust launches a new campaign to attract more qualified nurses to the specialism, Lynn has no hesitation in recommending the job.
“It’s the best career decision I ever made,” she said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to help children with a whole range of issues.
“I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it can be quite emotional when you see a child you’ve worked with come through and turn their lives around. There’s no more rewarding feeling than that.”
The Trust is looking to recruit more school nurses across Lancashire, offering potential candidates “an opportunity to empower children and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Lorraine Chadwick, the service integration manager, said: “We are extremely proud of our school nurses and their dedication to providing high quality care to children and young people. We are now looking forward to welcoming enthusiastic, innovative and highly-motivated school nurses. Together we can really make a difference to the lives of children and families in Lancashire.”
School nursing 21st century style is a far cry from the days when most of today’s team were children themselves.
Gone is the basic nits and jabs role which shaped their image a generation ago. Now they are highly-skilled in helping youngsters with issues like mental health, alcohol, self-harming, drugs, smoking, healthy eating, bullying and relationships.
And in a society obsessed with social media, young people are even encouraged to text them for help, support and confidential advice.
Fiona Stuart, who is about to complete her post-graduate year in school nursing - working on a placement with Lynn’s team in Penwortham - is a qualified registered psychiatric nurse from Lancaster and admits the skills and experience she gathered working in the mental health arena have been a perfect fit for her new role.
“Being a school nurse is so different from what people think it’s going to be,” she said. “It is so much more than the vision we all have.
“Coming from psychiatric nursing I’ve found that my skills are really transferable to school nursing. You need to be very aware of the issues affecting young people.
“With the internet and social media come things like cyber bullying and child sexual exploitation. So we have a lot of contact with other agencies like the police and social services.
“I worked in an adult in-patient unit before deciding to train as a school nurse and research shows that lots of emotional and mental health problems can be avoidable with early intervention. Issues can start when they are children. There are lots of things we can do that will hopefully prevent these young people needing treatment later in life, things like cutting down on sugar to prevent diabetes and the need to keep active and get exercise.
“One thing I’ve found particularly fascinating is the area of behaviour management, working with children with conditions like autism. It’s challenging, but extremely rewarding.”
Fiona, who is a mum of two young children, also thinks working in school nursing, even for just a year, has helped her at home.
“Children are at the centre of what we do, obviously, but just as importantly we help families. I’ve learned things this past year that have helped make me a better mother.
“When I was at school I don’t remember too much about the school nurse other than her talking about growing up and puberty. It’s good that some of those traditional roles are still there, but it is so much more varied than it ever was. It has really grown.”
Her team mentor Lynn admits that few people really understand what school nurses do these days and how broad their expertise is.
“It’s not head lice, nor inoculations any more,” she said. “We advise parents on how to check their child’s hair and we have a special immunisation team to do jabs.
“It’s completely different now. To be honest there are times when I feel a bit like an agony aunt, listening to young people’s problems. But I feel privileged to be able to offer them help and support.
“I feel like we are making a difference. When I go home at the end of a day’s work I feel like I’ve done my best for that child or that family.”