The significant policy changes in UK health care over the past decade have led to a consequent shift in the delivery of nurse education to ensure the development and sustainability of a knowledgeable nursing workforce. One of the most recent, radical and important initiatives is Modernising Nursing Careers, which outlined four key priority areas for nursing, all of which have implications for nurse education. In light of this initiative, we explore the extent to which the modernisation of nursing careers is rhetoric or reality for UK nurse education - we are on the precipice of great change. To facilitate this, we move chronologically through the issues of recruitment and access; pre-registration preparation; and post-qualification education and careers. In discussing these issues, we demonstrate that more changes are needed to produce nurses who are flexible, visionary and prepared to take risks. We suggest that vision, leadership and strong realignment with health priorities are needed to bring nurse education to a point where nurses are truly prepared for the demands of a 21st century health service. Crown Copyright (C) 2009 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.