The government is set to launch a national apprenticeship scheme for prospective nursing students later this year, Nursing Times understands.
The scheme will most likely see cadet schemes and HCA training expanded to prepare aspiring nursing students for the rigours of a nursing degree.
Nursing Times has learnt that the government will launch the new scheme in a bid to ensure recruitment from the widest possible pool of applicants.
Health ministers are understood to be worried that without a specific programme to help those from non-traditional academic backgrounds the number of people applying for a degree in nursing could fall dramatically.
One of the main criticisms of an all-graduate entry profession is that it could prove a disincentive for those from less academic backgrounds and lead to a less diverse recruitment pool.
A recent research review by the National Nursing Research Unit at King’s College London concluded that around one-third of current entrants to the profession each year do not have sufficient qualifications to undertake a degree.
Apprenticeships would offer a period of training to help prepare those from less academic background for the challenges of completing a degree.
Proposals currently being considered by government officials include extending existing cadet nursing programmes - currently run in some NHS trusts and usually comprising 26 weeks in a hospital setting and 20 weeks at a higher education institute – and rebranding them as apprenticeship scheme. Those who succesfully complete the new schemes could go on to access degree-level nurse training.
Trusts that already run such schemes include Scarborough and North East Yorkshire Healthcare NHS Trust, Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust and the Whittington Hospital NHS Trust in London.
The Whittington scheme, which is run in partnership with the North Central London Workforce Development Confederation, is longer than most schemes and consists of a two-year training programme after which candidates can begin nurse training.
Additionally, Nursing Times understands that HCAs who currently study for national vocational qualifications could also – after two years in NHS service – be deemed to have completed an apprenticeship and go on to degree level nurse training.
The union Unison supports the idea of apprenticeship schemes, particularly as a means of supporting HCAs to become registered nurses or midwives.
In a recent Nursing Times special supplement, Unison national officer Dave Godson said: ‘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,’ he added.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘We continue to actively explore with a range of organisations the potential entry routes into nursing. We want people from all backgrounds to have the opportunity to have access to a nursing career.
‘Cadetships are already used successfully to train staff in clinical support roles and apprenticeships could be used in a similar way. Developing existing and creating new pathways into pre-registration nurse education will provide real opportunities for HCAs and others with the talent and ambition to progress into nursing careers,’ he added.
The idea of nursing apprenticeships is in line with wider government policy on such schemes in other sectors. In January the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said it would fund an additional 35,000 apprentices for other professions in the present financial year – across both the public and private sector.
Last year 224,000 people started an apprenticeship, it said.