06th June 2016 Written by James Freed, Vicky Yearsley

Image: Apprenticeships in Health Informatics.Until the dawn of industrialisation, and in rural areas well into the 1900’s, if you wanted to learn a craft, you would apprentice to a Master Craftsman. On completion of your tenure, you would be granted the title of Journeyman, and be well on your way to becoming a Master Craftsman in your own right. The skills you were taught were defined and controlled, to a greater or lesser extent, by a guild. Guilds helped to set and maintain standards, but some research also indicates they may have been guilty of elitism by withholding skills and knowledge, and even price-fixing, through the monopolisation of a craft. Some of these guilds survive today, although in altered forms. The Freemasons, allegedly, has its roots in the Guild of Masons.

Today, of course, we are seeing something of a resurgence of the concept of vocational learning and apprenticeships, partly based on the premise, borne out by the evidence, that ‘learning by doing’ is the most effective way to learn. Apprenticeships are one of the Government’s flagship policies and the PM has committed to 3 million Apprenticeship starts during this parliament but the system is fundamentally changing. Employers will be increasingly in control of what Apprenticeships are available, what the Apprentice must do and the payment system.

The current system uses Apprenticeship frameworks. Regardless of the occupation, a framework contains an occupational competence qualification (previously known as an ‘NVQ’), English & maths requirements and describes how Employee Rights & Responsibilities (ERR) and Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) will be achieved. On completion of all components the Apprentice receives their Apprenticeship certificate.

As a result of this reform, frameworks are now being switched off. On 23rd May 2016, BIS announced that the Framework which sets out the level 2 and level 3 Apprenticeships in Health Informatics was to be discontinued because of low uptake.

However, there is a way to move from a framework, traditionally government-led and a wordy description of standards and competencies, to something more concise and built around the needs of employers. If there is employer demand for an Apprenticeship then they can create new Apprenticeship Standards. The vehicle to do this is through ‘Trailblazers’ supported by BIS. In summary, ten employers need to come together to define the knowledge, skills and behaviours of the chosen occupation. This becomes a 2 page ‘Standard’. Once approved by BIS the employers go on to produce an assessment plan. Training providers and assessment organisations then use these documents to deliver the Apprenticeship.

Now, this is where I bring in Health Informatics. I am jointly responsible for the implementation of commitment made by the National Information Board back in 2014 around helping the health and care workforce make the best use of data and technology. My feeling, and our plan, is to mobilise the informatics workforce, a part of the hidden army in the health and care industry, to support the workforce to take advantage of this fast-moving area. As part of the almost limitless opportunity here, this could be helping nurses, GPs and social workers to support people to look after themselves by using apps on their mobile phones or helping staff to communicate more easily.

A key part of this is mobilising our hidden army, and a key part of that recruiting the next generation of foot soldiers as an entry-point for the career. Skills for Health, Skills for Care and the group of informatics professional bodies that are coming together under the banner of a Federation of Informatics Professionals are one way of addressing this as contributors into the body of knowledge that is ‘what do health informaticians need to know’. Clearly the apprenticeship process is a huge opportunity for health and care organisations alike. The government will, from the intake in September 2017 onwards, be paying two-thirds of the cost of apprenticeship training otherwise footed by employers. This is a tremendous incentive that we are paying for through the apprenticeship levy – and we need to take advantage of it.

A key question that remains in my mind is whether we should be developing a standard for health informatics, or whether the standards (existing or in development) for other, more generic apprenticeships, are sufficient. There are plenty of standards that cover the IT and digital communities, but few that address data, information and knowledge management skills, so my feeling is that this is an area that needs adding to. However, very few apprentices took advantage of the Health Informatics framework, which implies Health Informatics may be too niche an area for a standard. Ultimately the decision is out of my hands. The system is set up so that apprenticeships are only created if employers value them, so my question is this: Do you?  

Whether we create a guild for Health Informatics, or whether we use the journeymen and journeywomen coming out of other apprenticeship schemes in the data, information, knowledge and technology fields, we’ll be creating a steady influx into this increasingly necessary profession whilst supporting the wider industry and the young (and old!) people looking for a purpose in life.

James Freed is the CIO of Health Education England and co-lead for the NIB work on supporting the health and care system to make the best use of data and technology. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @jamesfreed5 on twitter.

Vicky Yearsley is a Senior Manager at Skills for Health and has a long history in vocational education, standards and Apprenticeships across the UK. She facilitates the development of new Apprenticeship Standards in the health sector and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.