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Is the new nursing degree apprenticeship for you?

NHS nurse

The current route into nursing is to take a degree course, combining study at university with supervised work on hospital wards – but there will soon be another option. From September 2017, students will be able to ‘earn as they learn’ by taking a degree-level nurse apprenticeship.

Aren’t apprenticeships a thing of the past?

The government has been investing heavily in apprenticeships in recent years and there are now schemes across a wide range of sectors, giving young people the opportunity to learn and gain skills without being saddled by university debt.

Earlier this year the government committed to creating 100,000 apprenticeships within the NHS by 2020 to ensure it has a workforce with the right support, skills and numbers.

Will they only be open to school leavers?

As well as standard apprenticeships for 16-year-old school leavers, there are ‘higher’ apprenticeships which are generally open to those aged 18 and over who are finishing A-Levels.

While the nursing degree apprenticeship is likely to be popular with those leaving school, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has specifically mentioned opening up a career path for Healthcare Assistants (HCAs) to progress into nursing – with no mention of an age limit.

Applicants will not require GCSE English and maths, but before they start training, apprentices will have their numeracy and literacy skills assessed by the Nursing and Midwifery Council Approved Education Institution to ensure they meet a minimum of level two.

What will the scheme involve?

The nursing degree apprenticeship will involve blocks of practical on-the-job training combined with academic study, which will most likely be delivered by a university that has partnered with the apprenticeship provider. This university will also be the validating body for the degree itself, and the apprenticeship scheme is likely to take four to five years to complete.

The responsibilities of the nursing degree apprentice are said to include ‘assessing, planning, implementing and evaluating care,’ but as yet, we don’t know exactly what the scheme will look like. If it follows the format of other apprenticeships, trainees will be employed for a minimum of 30 hours a week, with a 16-hour week permitted in exceptional personal circumstances.

There are already a number of apprenticeships in the NHS for roles such as dental nurses or pharmacy technicians, and of course for the newly established nursing associate role, which sits between healthcare assistant and nurse in the ward hierarchy.

And what will they pay?

This is still under wraps, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that pay might mirror other NHS apprenticeships. Dental nurse apprentice positions are advertised with pay between £6,500 and £13,000, depending on location and on the status of the scheme provider. The lower end of that scale reflects the minimum amount payable to apprentices in law.

How has the scheme been received so far?

With details still lacking, the Royal College of Nursing (the professional body for nurses) has met the prospect of nursing degree apprenticeships with caution.

Chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: ‘Whilst this new apprenticeship model will provide a different opportunity, we need to be careful that their clinical experience is in a learning environment and they have access to graduate level education to gain the knowledge and skills required for 21st century health care, which are proved to have a direct effect on patient mortality. Nursing has progressed over many years, we must be careful to learn from the lessons of the past when student nurses were often seen as nursing on the cheap.’

And the RCN also expressed concern about a possible knock-on effect on other training.

It said in a statement: ‘We are concerned that the proposals as currently laid out will impact unduly on the existing workforce, for example, by causing employers to further reduce monies currently available for training and development, as we have seen with the removal of the bursary and cuts to funding for Continuing Professional Development.’

How do nursing apprenticeships fit into the bigger picture?

The other recent big news for would-be nurses has been the government’s decision to scrap bursary payments currently provided for student nurses and to make them pay their own university course fees. From August 2017, student nurses will have to use the same student loans system as mainstream academic students.

The move had been criticised for both narrowing the window of opportunity to those who can afford to take on tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and for potentially reducing the supply of trained nurses when the NHS is facing dire staff shortages.

While the new nursing degree apprenticeship may help bridge the gap (the government expects to recruit up to 1,000 trainees to the scheme each year), competition for places is likely to be fierce.

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