Opinion Piece | To support the NHS we must continue embracing different models of health and care education

A head and shoulders image of Ann-Marie Cannaby, Coventry University's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Health

Ann-Marie Cannaby, Coventry University's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Health

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Wednesday 05 June 2024

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Our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Health, Ann-Marie Cannaby, discusses how the education and training of health and care workers must evolve to help boost NHS numbers.

The RCN have recently reminded the profession of the declining numbers of students commencing nursing degrees with the announcement that the NHS’s Workforce Plan for England will be almost 11,000 new nurses behind target by 2025. The need for nurses in health and social care is increasing as the rise in demand for their services increases. Nursing as a professional group has debated the image of their profession for decades and, with the recent pandemic, this may have influenced people’s thinking even further. The role of the nurse and midwife has grown significantly and the advances in our practice are to be commended. We should be proud of what we have achieved but this isn't always recognised.

To encourage people into the profession perhaps we should start by first considering how people want to study and work today and what this means for health education and health and care providers. In our post-pandemic society flexibility in how we learn and work is a priority. Offering a diverse range of flexible opportunities including all the normal prerequisites as well as distance, blended courses and apprenticeships all immediately spring to mind.

I would suggest that there may be many people who think that careers in health and social care are not possible due to the entry requirements and therefore simply look elsewhere. While the Nursing Associate programme has provided many people with an opportunity to join the nursing profession, we need to do more if we are to deliver ongoing development and lifelong learning provision. It is also essential that the Nursing Associate role is understood, valued and appreciated, otherwise it will always be seen as just a stepping stone.

No place for educational snobbery

The relationships between further education and universities continue to quietly blossom and, in this shape, we may find answers in T levels, foundation courses and other routes which ensure progression from one environment to another. With the support of regulators, we could facilitate less repetition while concentrating more on competency rather than time served. Greater collaboration is also certainly required.

Whilst all the evidence points to degree-level nurse education having direct outcomes on patient care, something we are all supportive of, and is essential as roles and practice expand, we need to ensure people can achieve qualification standards. Educational snobbery will not help and is not appropriate. We need to provide greater access to education and different routes to learning that enable those without A levels to start their journey.

What people don’t want should also be considered. The debt of many undergraduate programmes is huge and it is no secret that introducing a fee-paying system for health and care students in 2017 has impacted the number of health professional graduates. With the traditional undergraduate degrees becoming an increasingly hard sell due to the finances involved, the required hours and the ongoing cost of living crisis, alternative modes of entry are now crucial.

Stronger partnerships between health providers and Schools of Health are necessary and we must continue integrating practice and education more effectively in line with colleagues in Medical Faculties. A shift to increase the number of students from a variety of different educational routes creates large-scale education and placement challenges for both Pro-Vice Chancellor/Deans of Health and Chief Nursing Officers. In the future, the way we utilise apprenticeships will significantly impact our outcomes. Promoting apprenticeships to both new hires and existing staff could also lead to changes in services and education.

In reflection, after many years of being a senior nurse, we have to accept that people want different things. Change is positive and today’s technology means we can educate, learn and work in different ways, which is exciting but often difficult, without dumbing down the standards we want and expect from our registered nurses. As professionals, we need to do everything we can to encourage and facilitate access into the profession and provide the support needed to grow our country’s healthcare provision.

Find out about Coventry University's School of Health and Care.