Just 4 per cent of recruits to a nursing leadership course set up at the request of the prime minister are from a non-white background, HSJ’s sister title Nursing Times has learnt.

Last year, David Cameron announced £46m funding to help 10,000 nurses and midwives develop their leadership skills in a bid to address care quality concerns. About 1,200 nurses and midwives will go through a bespoke course designed by the NHS Leadership Academy, while thousands of others will go through its existing courses.

However, academy data shows 94 per cent of the course’s first 315 recruits were white with a British or Irish background. A further 2 per cent were white but from other backgrounds. In contrast, Nursing and Midwifery Council data suggests about 20 per cent of registered nurses are from non-white backgrounds.

Of the 4 per cent from black and minority ethnic backgrounds selected for the course, just over 2 per cent were black, around 1 per cent were Asian and fewer than 1 per cent were from a mixed race background.

Lynette Phillips, a member of the chief nursing officer’s BME forum, said she was “disappointed” but not surprised by the figures. She said it was “very important” because nurses and midwives who had been through these programmes would have an advantage when applying for leadership positions.

“If BME nurses do not get on to these programmes then the likelihood of changing the status quo and making leadership at all levels more diverse is less,” she said.

Places are allocated through the academy’s 10 regional delivery partners that work with local providers to nominate staff for the courses. Carol Baxter, head of equality, diversity and human rights at NHS Employers, said it was “absolutely clear that bias, unconscious or otherwise” still occurs in the NHS. She added: “The NHS must have zero tolerance for discrimination when tackling these problems.”

The academy, which shared the data on request, acknowledged there had been a “hiccup” with the first recruits to the course.

The organisation was created as part of the government’s NHS reforms and took responsibility for a number of existing leadership courses when it formally started work in April.

Yvonne Coghill, the academy’s senior programme lead for inclusion, said she had been working hard to raise awareness of training opportunities and was confident future cohorts would be more representative.

“Bearing in mind we only started in April we are really getting our act together. There was a hiccup in BME recruits… It’s across the board that there’s this issue. This is an NHS issue,” she said.

Dave Ashton, head of practice at the academy, said underrepresentation on the new nursing and midwifery programme was, in part, due to the time pressure of getting the first cohorts onto the course as soon as possible after the prime minister’s announcement last October. He said established courses were far more representative.