Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests conducted by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) to 56 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) across the UK has found that there are too few teachers to train the burgeoning number of student midwives coming through the system. Coupled with increasing class sizes this is, they say, potentially compromising the quality of teaching and support for students.

These trends were revealed in FOIs for three consecutive years (2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12). The FOIs revealed that the student-to-midwife teacher ratio has increased gradually over the last three years to 14 students per teacher, up from 13 in 2009/10. Overall, this ratio has gradually increased over the last three years.

The RCM recommended a minimum standard in 2003 based on an original standard supported by the regulatory body the Nursing Midwifery Council (NMC), of a maximum of ten students to every teacher. The number of institutions meeting this standard has dropped from four in 2009/10 to just one in 2011/12.

A lower student to teacher ratio enables student midwives to be well supported in their development and acquisition of key clinical skills and knowledge. The lower student to teacher ratio also allows students to be supported during clinical practice, as well as in the classroom and ensures critical linkages between midwifery theory and recent clinical practice. This also results in improved and high quality care for mothers, babies and their families.

Teachers are also getting younger with more teachers aged 31 to 40. In 2010/11, only 5% of teachers were aged between 31 to 40 years old, but this figure has almost doubled to 9% for 2011/12. However, more than half of all teachers, or 53%, are still aged 50 years old or above in 2011/12. There was a small increase in the number of midwifery teachers aged over 60 from 4 per cent to 5.5 per cent of the teaching workforce. These teachers were also shown to be very well educated - over a quarter have or are studying for a doctorate.

In 2010/11, the average workforce attrition rate, or labour turnover, for teachers joining and leaving was 10%. This compares to 8% in 2009/10 and 14% for NHS nurses, midwives and health visitors in 2008.

RCM Chief Executive Cathy Warwick said: "These figures, perhaps, reflect a lack of confidence in the economy, with fewer students leaving without graduating and more going straight into the NHS. They also reflect an increasing tightening of the belt and squeeze on the resources, as institutions are unable to hire as many midwife teachers as they need to keep the quality of education high.

"Getting the number of midwifery teachers right is increasingly important, especially given the Government's welcome commitment on May 16th to maintain the number of midwifery student places."

The good news is that more midwifery students are seeing their courses through to graduation, as the drop out rate has plummeted. Only 7% of students left without graduating in 2010/11, compared to 8% in the previous academic year.

Professor Warwick added: "We know that 82% of newly-qualified midwives are working in the NHS within six months of qualifying. That's the highest it has been in seven years. Although there are more student midwives, the scale of the baby boom and, in particular, the rise in women with complex pregnancies who need more care than others and the greater complexity of pregnancy is outpacing the limited rise in NHS resources."

Of the 56 HEIs that the RCM requested information from, 34 responded, a 61% response rate.

Posted by Penny Hosie