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Key team members: Dawn Grant, lead nurse for healthcare assistants; Veronica Corben, assistant director of nursing; Heather Lawrence, chief executive
Faced with the challenge of improving services while delivering significant efficiencies, we realised we had to upskill our front-line healthcare assistants – not least because a review of roles, in keeping with the government’s Agenda for Change NHS pay and grading system, revealed several opportunities to employ healthcare assistants in Bands 2 or 3 where Band 5 nurses had previously been employed.As the person primarily responsible for the development of the 300 healthcare assistants employed by Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, my first step was to scrap our existing NVQ scheme. Staff weren’t achieving their qualifications within the allotted time, and we felt the scheme had lost its value, so we decided to go down the apprenticeship route as a good opportunity to embed something much better.Veronica Corben, our assistant director of nursing, drew on her extensive teaching experience and links with other hospitals to research best practice across our industry, helping to create a brief detailing what we wanted to achieve with our apprenticeship scheme.We then presented this to Heather Lawrence, our chief executive. A nurse by training herself, she immediately got behind the decision. After taking further advice from the National Apprenticeship Service, we met with three potential apprenticeship providers. UH Ventures, run jointly by the University of Hertfordshire and Exemplas, stood out because of its willingness to work in partnership with us, and we appointed them to run a Level 3 diploma in advanced clinical support.To ensure the first apprenticeship programme was successful and created momentum, we selected highly motivated individuals who were keen to participate and were fully supported by their managers, and put them through numeracy and literacy tests to identify those with the basic skills required to take part. We ended up with 12 apprentices, who were a real mix. Some were young new recruits with no experience, while others were older employees with qualifications from outside the UK. The decision to open up the scheme to more mature workers did have an impact on the funding available, but we were keen to make the apprenticeship as inclusive as possible.The 14-month programme, which covers mandatory areas including health and safety and infection control as well as job-specific units such as taking blood and recording electrocardiograms, kicked off in July 2011. Chief executive Heather Lawrence attended the first workshop to demonstrate the trust’s support for the apprenticeships programme.Since then, UH Ventures has supported the apprentices through one workshop a month, with half a day spent on functional skills (literacy and numeracy) and the other half dedicated to the theory of the clinical aspect of the job. Apprentices have also been given a further three hours of study leave a month for observation and assessment.Although it’s still early days, the outputs so far have been very good. The healthcare assistant apprenticeship has had such a positive impact on the employee engagement and skills of participants that we quickly launched another one for maternity support workers in September 2011. Everyone has really stepped up a level and is skilled and motivated to do much more. The feedback from employees is that the apprenticeship is much harder than they expected, especially compared with the NVQ, but they are proud of what they are working to achieve. Patients feel more supported, easing pressure on our qualified nurses and midwives, who can now prioritise administering drugs, discharging patients, healthcare planning and other tasks that only a qualified nurse can do.