RATIONALE: Nurse cadet schemes are locally developed initiatives which prepare participants for entry to preregistration nurse education. The paper discusses the political context in which modern day nurse cadet schemes have developed in the British National Health Service and explores the diversity of schemes currently operating in the United Kingdom (UK).
BACKGROUND: Nursing recruitment is a high priority for the National Health Service in the UK which, in common with many countries, is facing a nursing shortage. In addition, the government is committed to increasing flexibility in the education and recruitment of staff. The entry gate to health professional education needs to be widened to improve access for hitherto under-represented groups.
METHODS: The paper provides a critical commentary on key issues in the development of nurse cadet schemes as discussed in a range publications, together with information gathered from 'grey' literature and personal contacts in nurse education. A wide range of health care and social science databases was used to collect material for the discussion.
FINDINGS: Approximately 800 cadets are currently engaged in around 60 cadet schemes in a number of localities in Britain, and it is proposed that these will be expanded to over 2000 nurse cadets by 2004. Nurse cadet schemes have developed to meet local needs and priorities and, in the absence of a strong national framework, a wide diversity of participants, curricula and funding arrangements have emerged.
CONCLUSIONS: Serious consideration needs to be given to further standardization in the structure and funding of schemes to reduce the degree of inequality which currently exists for cadets, together with development of national benchmarks to ensure that a set of minimum standards is met. Any future development must be built on a systematic evaluation of current schemes, which has yet to be undertaken.