NHS trusts forge ahead with apprenticeship plans despite frustrations

NHS Trusts in England are forging ahead with apprenticeships despite ongoing frustrations.

NHS trusts in England are gearing up to spend their levy at a far faster rate than employers outside the health sector and most plan to expand apprenticeship programmes – even though many of them are frustrated by their perceived inflexibility, according to one of the largest ever surveys on the subject.

The BPP University survey of 175 trusts, which represents over two-thirds of the sector in England, found that virtually all planned to use the Apprenticeship Levy rather than lose it, and that most would spend the majority of funds in the first year compared to less than a fifth (18%) of employers outside the NHS.

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Four-fifths of NHS employers plan to expand their number of apprenticeship programmes and almost all plan to offer clinical as well as non-clinical options – 89%, for instance, plan to offer health care support and 85% nursing degree apprenticeships.

However, nine in ten trusts wanted more flexibility in how they spent the levy and none said they were satisfied with the status quo. Large majorities wanted to be able to use the levy pot for in-house training programmes outside of apprenticeships, programme overheads and salary and headcount.

Professor Lynne Gell, Director of Nursing and Healthcare Education at BPP University, said it was gratifying to see so many in the health service embrace apprenticeships with enthusiasm, particularly as those in clinical roles who had little experience of them until recently.

“Not only are NHS employers converting many of their non-clinical training roles into apprenticeships, the vast majority are also exploring programmes in clinical roles, such as nursing apprenticeships, too. Just as importantly, trusts are using the opportunity the levy presents to upskill colleagues who may not have had training opportunities before.”

In contrast to employers outside the health sector, NHS trusts are focusing most of their levy funds on internal rather than external candidates, with two-fifths saying they will use 80% of the levy on internal apprentices and one in ten saying they will spend all of it on them. Very few plan to reverse the split and spend 80% of the levy on external apprenticeships and 20% on internal hires.

As a result, trusts are targeting a broad range of age groups, with 80% of them saying, for instance, that a fifth of apprenticeships will be aged 16-24 and a fifth will also be in the 51 plus age bracket.

Professor Gell added that the government’s 2.3% apprenticeship target for the public sector is partly responsible for employers’ focusing on existing staff rather external hires, it’s only part of the story. “NHS trusts tend to see apprenticeships not merely as recruitment tools but also as crucial instruments for retention and progression. So it’s not surprising to see health providers tailor programmes to meet the training needs of existing staff.

She also said that it would be foolish to downplay the challenges trusts faced. “The NHS is arguably the most complex organisation in the country. The expectations and pressures placed on it are unlike any other employer. That means that regulatory approval, for instance, can be far more rigorous in the NHS than outside it. It also means that converting existing courses into apprenticeships isn’t always straightforward, particularly where the funding has historically come from elsewhere and the roles are supernumerary.”

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