Apprentice nurses should not be counted as part of staffing numbers and must be supernumerary throughout their training just as student nurses are, the chief executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Council has said.
Following an announcement by the health secretary last week about plans in England to introduce the first degree-level nurse apprenticeships from September, the head of the regulator reiterated the new programmes would have to meet the same standards as nursing degrees.
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The introduction of nurse apprenticeships comes at a time of chronic nurse staffing shortages across the country and also coincides with the removal of student nurse bursaries in England, which it has been claimed could deter some people from training.
In an interview with Nursing Times, Jackie Smith said there were “challenges” to overcome with bringing in apprentice training for nurses.
This included ensuring employers did not try and use them as nurses before they qualified, she said.
Her comments echoed those made by the NMC’s chair who also said there was a “danger” of this occurring.
“There are challenges when you talk about earning and learning. Some of those come around the supernumerary status,” Ms Smith told Nursing Times.
“Our existing standards say you are a student right throughout your programme and therefore you cannot be counted in the [staffing] numbers.
“It’s really important that employers who are taking this route recognise that our standards still apply,” she said.
“So you can earn and learn but when you are working, you are not a nurse. You are a healthcare assistant or trainee apprentice – but you are not a nurse until you get on our register,” she added.
“There are challenges when you talk about earning and learning”
During an NMC council meeting last week, the regulator’s chair Janet Finch also said there was a “danger – not to say that this is the intention – that people will start saying you can become a nurse while becoming an apprentice”.
However, when asked by Nursing Times, Ms Smith said no additional measures were needed for the time being to ensure apprentices were supernumerary, adding that this requirement was already laid out in current NMC standards.
Last week the health secretary unveiled a series of plans to improve career progression for healthcare assistants and nurses.
As part of this, the Department of Health said it expected up to 1,000 apprentice nurses could join the NHS in England every year once the new route into training was fully established.
The training will be free to apprentices, with the tuition fees paid for by a new apprenticeship levy that will be applied to employers from next year.
The final version of a document laying out the description of what apprentice nurses will be doing and the skills required of them – known as the apprenticeship standard – was also published last week. It confirms the apprenticeship programme will “typically” take four years to complete.
Unlike student nurses who usually study for three years full-time, it is understood that apprentices will train part time in the NHS and social care settings, alongside working shifts as a healthcare assistant.
Previously, in order to be eligible for registration, the NMC required student nurses and midwives to finish full-time programmes within five years and part-time programmes within seven years.
However, last year it dropped the requirement in response to concerns that it may not be complying with equality laws, because some students – such as those who are pregnant – may need more flexibility.
Nt editorial jackie smith
Nursing Times asked the head of the NMC whether the regulator would now look at introducing time limits for people to complete apprenticeships.
“We are not stipulating it has got to be in a certain amount of time, but equally we don’t expect it to take overly long,” said Ms Smith.
However, she noted it was important for nurses to qualify with up-to-date knowledge and understanding of practice, and pointed to the government’s expectation that apprentices would need to pass an independent assessment at the end of their training.
“That’s not what we require…But let’s not assume the NMC standard is the only method by which someone can judge someone’s suitability,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Department of Health unveiled a target of 100,000 new apprenticeships in the NHS in England by 2020.
The government also recently announced the first round of funding for a group of universities to develop degree-level nurse apprenticeships for September.
These included Universities of Derby, Gloucestershire, Greenwich, and Sunderland, but others could also offer the new training route from next year.