FE has vast expertise in delivering healthcare apprenticeships, but those trying to solve the nursing shortage fail to see the larger role it could play, says Laira Pearson

Apprentice numbers in the NHS are falling and the number of nurse vacancies are increasing. The obvious question is: Why aren’t NHS employers using their large apprentice levy pots to fund nurse apprenticeships?

To those of us in further education, the solution looks simple: let FE providers get involved. The sad reality is that this option is largely being ignored. Undergraduate nurse programmes are currently being delivered only by universities in their capacity as Approved Education Institutions (AEIs) designated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. This approach worked well enough until the bursary for the undergraduate degrees was removed and the nursing degree apprenticeship standard was published; HEIs have been trying to get up to speed with apprenticeships ever since. 

Given how much of a priority it is for the NHS to ensure there is a continuous supply of qualified nurses entering the system, why hasn’t the NMC turned to FE to leverage their vast expertise in apprenticeships and appetite for pace? Surely it’s a match made in heaven.

The NMC says it is considering awarding AEI status to FE colleges with degree-awarding powers – but there are so few FE colleges in this position that it feels somewhat tokenistic.

FE colleges such as Bridgwater & Taunton College are already successfully delivering degree-level apprenticeships in high-risk sectors such as engineering via sub-contract or franchise arrangements with HEIs. So why not nursing?

With the introduction of the level five nursing associate apprenticeship, the question has been pushed even further up the agenda by FE colleges and the Association of Colleges. Of the 35 pilot sites in England, only three FE colleges are involved: Bridgwater & Taunton College, Petroc and South Devon College. 

This is bigger than individual institutions: this is about a sustainable NHS workforce

When the pilot programme was launched as a foundation degree in January 2017, the Devon programme was developed and delivered by Petroc and South Devon College in partnership with the University of Plymouth. In Somerset, the University of the West of England (UWE) worked with us at Bridgwater & Taunton College to develop and deliver their nursing associate programme.

Fast forward to the publication of the nursing associate apprenticeship standard less than a year later, however, and all changed for our FE colleagues in Devon. Despite FE being the experts in apprenticeships, the NMC stated that AEIs needed to be the lead provider, and the University of Plymouth quickly withdrew from its FE partners to deliver the apprenticeship direct. 

Thankfully, appeals from employers in Somerset resulted in UWE committing to maintain delivery of the programme locally via Bridgwater & Taunton College. We have an impressive track record when it comes to healthcare apprenticeships. Our employer partnerships are strong, and this year alone 52 of our higher apprentices in health will graduate… did I mention we are good at this?

With no university in the county, Somerset is particularly vulnerable when it comes to nursing resource. Individuals looking to pursue a career in nursing are required to leave the area to undertake their nursing degree; employers must then invest massively in recruitment campaigns to attract them to return as qualified nurses. A ridiculous set of circumstances, and one that the apprenticeship levy was intended to solve.

What we know is that nursing resource is in crisis and the apprenticeship levy is meant to help deliver the right skills in the right place at the right time. Failing to recognise FE as leaders in apprenticeship development and employer engagement poses a risk to apprenticeships in the health sector ever working at all.

I’m sure we all agree that this is bigger than individual colleges and universities: this is about the sustainability of the NHS workforce. The sooner the NMC invites FE into the discussion to get some pace behind nursing apprenticeships, the better.