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Apprenticeships in health care could help economic recovery

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As part of its strategy to prepare the country for economic recovery, the government is increasing opportunities for apprenticeships in health care, says Dave Godson

Healthcare assistants are a highly valued part of the NHS workforce and provide essential services to patients as part of the nursing team.

However, the number of secondment places for HCAs who want to enter nurse or midwifery training have fallen sharply in the past few years. In England they fell from 2,933 in 2005-2006 to 1,347 in 2006-2007 and to 826 a year later; they are believed to have fallen even further in recent months. While many trusts see staff training as an easy target when trying to save money it undermines staff attitudes towards careers in the NHS.

New opportunities to help HCAs to develop their existing roles or to move on to become nurses or midwives are now being discussed as part of a large expansion of apprenticeships.

In January, prime minister Gordon Brown announced that £140m would be spent to create an additional 35,000 apprenticeship places in the UK for 2009-2010 in both the public and private sectors. The aim is to strengthen the country’s competitiveness and help people to develop the skills that will be needed as the economy begins to recover.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skillssays it will increase spending on apprenticeships in the next year to just under £1bn; an additional £140m on top of that will expand the programme even further over the coming year. This means that more than a quarter of a million apprentices will begin their training in the next financial year, across a wide range of industries and professions.

An apprenticeship can provide a high-quality route into a skilled job, and UNISON believes around 5,000 of those new apprenticeship places are likely to be within the health and social care sectors. Many of these are likely to offer HCAs training opportunities.

The union is one of the stakeholders on a steering group set up by the Department of Health to help plan how apprenticeships might work within health care.

UNISON believes there is a real opportunity to work in partnership with NHS organisations to improve career options through the apprenticeship route for HCAs and other NHS staff. At the same time this will enhance service delivery and the patient experience.

It is yet to be decided how apprenticeships will be structured. Principally the plan is aimed at Agenda for Change bands 1-4, which will include HCAs. The apprenticeship steering group is fine-tuning the work plan, with the aim of providing apprenticeships for new starters as well as for existing staff.

The way apprenticeships would fit into a HCA role is still under discussion. It has yet to be decided whether HCAs could use an apprenticeship as a step from HCA to nurse entry level or to a level where they could get on to a secondment programme into nurse training but UNISON will argue strongly that this is a model which HCAs should be able to use either to extend their current knowledge or progress if they wish into other fields.
There is also some discussion about whether apprenticeships should be developed to enable people to remain in their existing roles but to gain some career progression.

It is envisaged money for the apprenticeships will be allocated to employers so that apprentices are employees and are paid a salary while training. It is also possible that apprenticeships could be organised in modular programmes so people could mix and match their learning, depending on which career direction they wanted to go in.

It is early days, but the government is driving the process because it is keen to see results. UNISON is keen that the apprenticeships should work within the Agenda for Change system and that people should have a guaranteed job at the end of the process.

Apprenticeships should be an opportunity to build on the already strong contribution that HCAs make every day to the NHS. They should also enhance HCAs’ opportunities to progress to professional qualifications or to develop their skills in their current role.

Dave Godson is a UNISON national officer

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