Supernumerary or not?

What to do when you're asked to perform HCA duties on placement

A recent RCN Students Facebook group discussion highlighted a common issue when the health service is stretched to breaking point.

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The response to this post varied, with some comments suggesting the student just get on with the job and others recommending they refuse and report it to their mentor. So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

The official line

The NMC’s 2010 Standards for Pre-registration Nursing Education are very clear. They say: “Programme providers must ensure that students are supernumerary during all practice learning. Supernumerary means that the student will not, as part of their programme of preparation, be contracted by any person or body to provide nursing care.”

Essentially this means students should not be counted as part of the workforce, at least from a practical perspective, while on placement, and should not be asked to work as such.

There are good reasons for this as Gill Coverdale, RCN Professional Lead for Education, explains.

“If a student is on placement, they are accruing the hours required to enable them to register as a nurse with the NMC. An employer cannot re-designate these hours. If a student works as an HCA then those hours do not count towards the registration requirement so these would have to be completed at another time. What’s more, working as an HCA and being a student on placement are two different functions with different requirements and responsibilities.”

Gerry O’Dwyer from the RCN’s employment relations department adds that for an employer to ask a student to work as an HCA they would need to have employed them on particular terms, set them up to be paid and checked their DBS status. “This should not be done ‘on the hoof’ or in retrospect,” he says.

Pushing back

If you find yourself in this situation, you should remind whoever is asking you to work as an HCA of your supernumerary status and that you are there as a student on placement. If they don’t withdraw their request you should tell your mentor and university as soon as possible.

While refusing such a request from a registered nurse or other member of staff might be daunting, it’s important to remind them of the arrangements for your placement and the need to complete your required hours as planned. Just remember to approach the issue in as polite and professional way as possible. 

Working as an HCA and being a student on placement are two different functions

How to raise a concern

The RCN guidance for helping students get the best from their practice placements says:

“If you are concerned about any placement area, notify the service manager, your mentor and your personal tutor as soon as possible, either during the placement or immediately following it. Discuss your placement experiences with your personal tutor and explain why you had an unsatisfactory experience. Agree on the actions that will be taken to inform the appropriate people, for example, the higher education institution and service link managers. It is important you follow the correct channels of communication already established.”

Read the full guidance.

Did you know?

The RCN is calling for new legislation that guarantees safe and effective nurse staffing. It comes after more than 30,000 members responded to a survey last year that provided a snapshot of their experiences on the last shift they worked. More than half said there were fewer nursing staff on shift than planned.

Find out more and get involved at

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