Give nursing degree apprenticeships special treatment, education committee urges

The NHS will not meet its apprentice recruitment target unless nursing degree apprenticeships are given special treatment, an influential group of MPs has warned.

The education select committee’s report, ‘Nursing degree apprenticeships – in poor health’, based on its inquiry over the summer, was published today.

It highlighted a series of obstacles to the delivery of high numbers of nursing degree apprenticeships – including the greater off-the-job training requirement for nursing students, and the additional costs of apprentices’ salaries as well as ‘backfill’ for the time spent off-the-job.

The report recommends that the funding band for the level six standard should be kept at £27,000 – currently the highest funding band – or even increased in the future.

It also repeated the call, first made by chair Robert Halfon at a hearing in July, for greater flexibility in how the NHS is able to spend its levy funds.

“The idea that degree apprenticeships are a realistic route into the profession is currently a mirage,” he said.

“Ambitious targets are simply not going to be met.”

He accused the Department of Education of “a lack of imagination and foresight” for having failed to give “enough attention” to “adapting apprenticeships to meet the needs of the NHS”.

“Ministers must now recognise the uniqueness of the health service’s position and allow flexibility in the use of the apprenticeship levy so these apprenticeships can be made to work for both the employer and students,” Mr Halfon said.

Figures published last month by the DfE showed that the NHS was some way off meeting the 2.3 per cent public sector apprenticeship target.

It had 13,800 apprenticeship starts in 2017/18 – down from 19,820 two years previously – which represented 1.2 per cent of a total headcount of 1,194,614.

Nonetheless, skills minister Anne Milton said she was “particularly pleased” to see the NHS doing so well.

“I visited Leeds Teaching Hospital recently where I saw first-hand how apprenticeships have changed people’s lives and are helping to make sure the NHS can continue to get the skilled nurses they need,” she said at the time.

Nursing degree apprenticeships are currently set at the maximum funding band of £27,000, but NHS trusts have complained that even this does not cover the costs of the training.

The figure is around £10,000 less than a university delivering a full-time nursing degree would receive in fees, and “on a par” with the cost of delivering these traditional degrees.

“Any future reduction of the funding band must be assessed to ensure that providers can continue to deliver apprenticeships” and these assessments must be published, today’s report said.

It warned that there is currently “little incentive for the NHS to spend precious time and resource building nursing apprenticeships”.

The cost of delivering nursing apprenticeships was cited in the inquiry and in today’s report as one of the biggest barriers to their take-up.

Nursing apprentices are required to spend 50 per cent of their time in off-the-job training – much higher than the typical 20 per cent – and also can’t be included in staffing numbers until they are fully qualified.

These extra costs added up to around £35,000 per apprentice, per year, the report said.

It urged the government to “reconsider its position in not providing much needed flexibility in the apprenticeship levy for the NHS” and to allow it to use the fund to “cover the backfill costs of apprentices who are required by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to be supernumerary”.

The DfE has been approached for a comment.