I have previously written in FE Week about the role of education providers in supporting NHS staffing challenges. As a direct result, I was invited to speak last week at a national NHS conference about sustaining the healthcare workforce, where I encouraged NHS employers to establish, if needed, lines of communication with their local FE colleges.
Now I think we need to do the same. The NHS workforce plan laid out ambitious targets, but the reality is that the current pipeline of future employees is falling short. Applications for health courses at UK universities are down nationally. We need to be capturing learners earlier, and getting people excited about what an NHS career could look like.
To that end, the FE sector needs strong links with senior NHS leaders to forge meaningful long-term partnerships. So, FE leaders: where strong partnerships aren’t already established, be bold in your approach. Pick up the phone, broker a meeting and try to secure that buy-in.
In Bolton, we’ve worked hard to achieve this. This is partly though the Bolton Vision partnership which brings together key public sector service providers, and partly through proactively setting up a monthly meeting with key practitioners within Bolton NHS Trust, the University of Bolton and Bolton College.
This keeps us informed of important operational developments, with key NHS staff able to tell us directly where they’re seeing shortfalls. We’re able to share our own challenges too, such as in securing staff with clinical experience. Doing this has resulted in work to explore mixed models of teaching that enable hospital staff to continue in operational roles while teaching part-time. We’ve also been able to secure a senior NHS director to sit on the Bolton College board.
The benefits are abundantly clear. We’ve seen some real highs in recent years, including a successful joint capital bid for the new Institute of Medical Sciences and securing high-quality work placements for the first wave of Health T level students.
It’s also helped us to create new community pathways for adult learners, for which we have devolved funding in Greater Manchester. We’ve worked closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Bolton Council on how best to utilise that and are running programmes across community centres offering routes back into study.
I’m particularly proud of one cohort of learners who participated in a community healthcare taster course, subsequently completed level 2 and level 3 at the College and have just graduated from the University of Bolton with nursing degrees. Creating local routes for local jobs in our NHS is a brilliant example of how we can work together.
But it’s not all about putting students on track for clinical careers. We also sit on the Bolton digital partnership board, where we discovered that the NHS’ digital arm is significantly understaffed, particularly in health informatics.
We’ve since worked closely with the Trust’s digital team to shape our digital Higher Technical Qualifications, aligning them more closely with sought-after skills and co-designing work-ready assessments. We’ve also invited NHS digital staff to talk to students about the careers available to them. Where students previously had no idea what ‘health informatics’ was, there’s now a huge appetite to pursue it, and we’ve seen high numbers of students opting to do work placements with the NHS.
And this partnership is benefiting our learners in other ways too. Through the AoC Region and working with GMColleges, we’ve secured funding over the past three years from the devolved Greater Manchester mental health and social care partnership and the violence reduction unit to develop learning resource on knife crime, sexual exploitation and consent – all identified as drivers of mental health issues for young people in Bolton.
My message to college leaders is simple: Pick up the phone and begin cementing a regular channel of two-way communication. Get a seat at the table, or invite them to have one at yours. FE has a vital role to play in delivering the NHS’ future workforce, but we need long-term partnership structures in place to do this effectively.