The number of National Health Service apprenticeship starts fell by more than a fifth last year despite a plan for rapid expansion.

Increasing the amount of NHS apprentices has been an important government goal since 2016, when health secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged to create a further 100,000 starts in the sector by 2020.

At that point, in the academic year 2015/16, the health service had a total of 19,820 starts.

However, the Department of Health and Social Care has now revealed that the number of people embarking on apprenticeships in the NHS fell by 22 per cent to 15,532 in 2016/17.

Health minister Stephen Barclay divulged the figure in his answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Tottenham MP David Lammy.

Numbers for 2017/18 are not available yet, but it is known that there has been an extremely slow take-up of nursing degree apprenticeships so far, with only 20 starts up to the end of January this year.

The government hopes that degree apprenticeships will help solve nursing shortages across the country. It is hoped that more trainees will be encouraged into nursing, as they receive wages while they train rather than having to pay towards the traditional degree route.

But NHS leaders have warned that its starts target will be missed without urgent reform the apprenticeship levy.

“Without the flexibility in the levy, to be blunt, we are not going to get there,” Danny Mortimer, the chief executive of NHS Employers, told the Commons education committee in a specially convened hearing earlier this month.

He was referring to Public Health England’s desire to get 2,400 people enrolled on the degree programme.

Overall, PHE wants “17,000 nursing associates having completed additional training” via degree apprenticeships “to become registered nurses”.

NHS Employers represents employers in the health service, and told the education committee through written submission in March that the NHS needs longer than the standard two years to use up the £200 million apprenticeship levy payments it is shelling out annually.

Mr Mortimer explained that apprenticeships are a “very expensive way of training a nurse” and current Department for Education policy does not “accept the difference between a nursing degree apprenticeship and other degree apprenticeships”.

“They will not allow us to fund the time to put in place the additional on-the-job supervision, mentoring and practice development that students need, and they will not extend the timescale for us to be able to access the levy to spend it on nursing degree apprenticeships,” he continued.

He added that nursing degree apprenticeships cost an additional £35,000 or £40,000 per student every year over their four-year duration.

Nursing degree apprenticeships were announced by Mr Hunt in November 2016, involving new nursing associate and full, registered nurse apprenticeships, lasting two and four years respectively.

A nursing associate role was also introduced, with people who complete nursing associate apprenticeships able to count it as training towards a nursing degree.

However, there had been only 20 starts on the registered nursing standard and 10 for nursing associates by the end of January.

Mr Barclay said Health Education England is leading the development of a number of new health-related apprenticeship standards which will open up pathways for several careers across the NHS. As of May, 21 new standards are ready for delivery and a further 29 are in development.

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