Calls for reforms to registered nurse apprenticeships have been shot down by the government in a move branded “hugely disappointing” by employers.
In its official response to an inquiry into current problems in the system, the government today refused to budge on controversial policies such as the way these apprenticeships are funded.
“Any fall in the funding bands for nursing apprenticeships will have a detrimental impact”
The apprenticeship route into degree level nursing was introduced in September 2017, following the controversial scrapping of the student bursary in England.
In a report published at the end of last year, the Commons’ Education Committee – a group of cross-party MPs appointed to scrutinise education policy – found that take-up was falling way short of the annual target of 1,000 new starters.
The committee warned: “There are too many obstacles in the way of nursing degree apprenticeships, making it extremely difficult for the NHS to play its part in achieving the public sector target.”
A key issue raised by the committee was the need for greater flexibility around the use the apprenticeship levy in the NHS.
One of the reasons for the government bringing in nurse apprenticeships was to help the NHS get more out of the £200m per year it contributes to the levy.
However, the committee argued that employers were being put off because current funding rules did not recognise the unique requirements on nurse apprentices.
For example, nurse degree apprentices are required by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to have 50% of their time protected for learning – way higher than the 20% minimum expectation for other apprentices.
During their protected practice-based study time, apprentices must be “supernumerary” and, therefore, cannot be counted in safe staffing levels so must be backfilled with another staff member.
“We are all increasingly worried that the government is unwilling to make sensible changes to the way the levy operates”
The committee found the cost of a nurse apprentice was £34,358 per year including £20,361 on salary, £3,112 on mentoring and supervision, £10,875 on backfill and £6,750 on training. However, the only costs covered by the levy are those for training.
It recommended that the government should allow NHS employers to use their apprenticeship levy to cover more of these associated costs, warning: “Without flexibility in the levy, we can see little incentive for the NHS to spend time and resource developing nursing degree apprenticeships.”
In its response, the government recognised that nurse apprentices had “unique supernumerary requirements” but said making the changes requested would make the programme “unaffordable”.
“Apprenticeships are real jobs with training and we expect all employers to cover employment costs as they would with any employee, including wages while training,” it said.
“Apprenticeships funding can be used to cover the eligible costs of training and assessment for the apprentice,” it added. “Changing the apprenticeships funding criteria to cover wider costs would quickly make the programme unaffordable, limiting opportunities for future apprentices.”
The government also said meeting the committee’s recommendation to consider increasing the £27,000 “funding band” for nursing apprenticeships – the amount universities can charge employers to deliver the four-year nursing apprenticeship – would make the scheme “unaffordable”.
However, it did agree with the committee’s ask to prioritise clinical professional development for nurses, adding that further details about how it would do this would be set out in the forthcoming NHS workforce implementation plan, due later this year.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, which represents trusts, said it was “hugely disappointing” with the government’s response.
“Our frustrations with apprenticeships policy and the unwillingness of the government to reform that policy reflect three facts: the NHS is the largest employer in every part of the country; we are committed to using apprenticeships across our workforce; and we are being priced out of using apprenticeships in some of our areas of greatest need – training extra nurses in particular,” he added.
“I know our concerns are shared by other sectors of the economy, and we are all increasingly worried that the government is unwilling to make sensible changes to the way the levy operates,” Mr Mortimer said.
Responding to the government’s statement, Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, which acts as a voice for schools of nursing, warned against any drop in the funding band for nursing degree apprenticeships, currently at the highest level.
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“Universities are working in close collaboration with local employers to develop healthcare apprenticeships and widen access into healthcare careers amidst complex regulatory rules,” she said.
“Nursing education is costly and resource-intensive,” she said. “Any fall in the funding bands for nursing apprenticeships will have a detrimental impact on the ability of healthcare educators to deliver nursing apprenticeships. “
Anne Milton, minister for skills and apprenticeships, said: “We always take the recommendations of the Education Select Committee very seriously and will continue to work with the NHS to make sure that they can make the best of the opportunities that apprenticeships offer.”