The depth of feeling surrounding the announcement that healthcare assistants are to be able to become registered nurses via apprenticeship schemes is backed by the figures.
In little more than a week, the story has been read so far by more than 3,000 people on nursingtimes.net and nearly 50 comments have been posted about it.
Some people were in favour, some against and others noted its historical context. One said: “It adds nothing to what is currently available to those seeking entry to the profession”, while another added: “Oh what a surprise enrolled nurse is back.”
However, I had originally planned to write about the importance of the latest findings to be published from the RN4CAST study, which came out a couple of weeks ago in The Lancet.
The seminal study, involving 420,000 patients and 26,000 nurses from a range of countries, included a strong UK contingent and had two key results.
Firstly, that an increase in a nurse’s workload by one patient increased the likelihood of an inpatient dying within 30 days of admission by 7%. If ever there was an argument against cutting nurse numbers to save money, this was it.
Secondly, it found that every 10% increase in nurses with a bachelor’s degree was associated with the likelihood of death within 30 days decreasing by 7%. If ever there was an argument against the myth that introducing degree-only entry was somehow detrimental to the profession, this was it.
The lead author, Linda Aiken, went on record to state: “Our data challenge the widely held view that nurses’ experience is more important than their education.”
Job done, I thought. An end to tabloid newspapers bewailing that nurses were “too posh to wash” as opposed to being properly educated to treat the increasingly complex range of conditions. While washing and similar tasks are vital skills that often take experience to do well, modern nursing is about much more.
And yet, a week later, seemingly in defiance of the research, the government announced plans for apprenticeships that would fast-track HCAs into nursing through training on the job. The Nursing Higher Apprenticeship would have a degree built into it but those undertaking it would not be required to have the academic qualifications normally required to go to university.
Why was this and why now, so soon after moving away from having both the diploma and degree routes? After all, England only became degree-only entry in September 2013 – 10 years after Scotland led the way, shortly followed by Wales in 2004 and then Northern Ireland in 2011.
I suspect the policy announcement needs to be viewed from several angles to try and understand what may be driving it.
My first point is that apprenticeships are already at the centre of wider government policy. Apprenticeship is a mantra regularly trotted out by ministers from a number of departments, such as business, education and employment. But do they really fit for health, or is health being made to fit around them?
Secondly, ministers justified the announcement on apprenticeships because they were mooted last year in the government-commissioned Cavendish report. So while it may have taken some by surprise last week, it did not come completely out of thin air.
The Times journalist Camilla Cavendish was asked to look at “what could be done to ensure that unregistered staff in the NHS and social care treat all patients and clients with care and compassion”.
In her subsequent report, she called on Health Education England to develop “new bridging programmes into pre-registration nursing… from the support staff workforce” and “review the contribution of vocational experience towards degrees so that staff with strong caring experience can undertake ‘fast-track’ degrees”.
But I would note that the Cavendish review always raised a few question marks for me. Ms Cavendish noted herself that she was only given “14 short weeks” to compile her report, while it potentially affected over 1.3 million frontline staff.
And, given the ambitious aims of the review, the government’s insistence that it should focus solely on education and training was only looking at half the picture. Failure to tackle the question of HCA regulation was always the elephant in the room.
Was the Cavendish review planned by the government as a vehicle to push its wider policy on apprenticeships into the health sector – admittedly a controversial suggestion – or was it merely eagerly leapt on when it emerged?
A third area that may have added fuel to the move is the increasing realisation that the NHS is short of nurses. In the wake of the Francis report, trusts across the country have been scrambling to recruit nurses after years of cuts. It has led more and more to seek nurses from overseas because there simply are not enough home-grown candidates to fill jobs.
Health Education England has announced an increase in places on nurse degree courses but the impact of this extra intake will not be felt for three or four years. Fast-tracking HCAs into the professions would therefore present a short-term solution.
Therefore, returning to the start of what I wanted to say, RN4CAST conclusively showed the value of degree-level nursing. But the government’s general direction of travel seems to be out of sync.
We have both the idea of HCAs entering nursing through apprenticeships and the pilot scheme for all potential graduates to spend a minimum of three months working as HCAs before they can begin their course – announced this time last year immediately after the Francis report.
I can’t help but feel this is somehow pandering to the outdated view of nursing as basically about washing and hand-holding – important though these tasks are.
The research evidence supports a different route, so why take this one, especially as in my view it risks nursing becoming a two-tier career and that can only mean more trouble further down the line.
Strangely, no one has so far suggested that GPs – bored of the weekly line of aches, pains and strains – might like to apply for an apprenticeship in the specialty of their choice!