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To explore the experience of student support prior to the implementation of a new structure for supporting students and mentors in practice placements (Placement Development Teams) for health care professionals. This study reports findings relating to acute sector adult nursing students and staff.Clinical practice is essential in pre-registration health care professional education programmes. The English Model National Partnership Agreement for health care education gives a new impetus to Strategic Health Authorities, Higher Education Institutions and National Health Service Trusts to evaluate and redesign their strategies for student support.This study was phase one of a large longitudinal qualitative evaluation of Placement Development Teams' introduction. The design for this phase was cross-sectional.Data were collected using telephone interviews with key educational stakeholders in trusts and Strategic Health Authorities and focus groups with third-year adult nursing students working in six acute sector trusts.Five themes emerged from the nursing students' focus group data. These were (1) Supportive and unsupportive behaviour of staff. (2) Mentor allocation. (3) Placement allocation. (4) Benefits of students to the placement area. (5) Perceived control over the learning experience. Four themes emerged from data analysis of the staff telephone interview data. These were (1) Vision of support services. (2) Proactive versus reactive support. (3) Barriers to achieving proactive support. (4) Bridging the gap between education and the trusts.Supporting students in practice is multifaceted and interpersonal and structural factors are important. This study illustrates how student support activity can be redesigned to meet the needs of the Model National Partnership Agreement.Good mentoring is particularly important for student support. Where there are high student numbers in placement, this can adversely affect students' placement learning.