17th August 2015

Image: Assistant Practitioner. Skills for Health has published a unique report, “Higher Apprenticeships in the South West”, exploring the contribution the Higher Apprenticeship Framework has had on the development of the “semi-autonomous worker” or Assistant Practitioner (AP) role. The research outlines the positive impact the AP role has had on career opportunities for the healthcare support workforce, as well as strong examples of the role being deployed and its contribution to improving both efficiency and patient care.

The Research

Research for the report consisted of personal interviews with 25 people from four employers in the South West of England, including recently qualified assistant practitioners, their employers, line managers, learning providers and co-ordinators. In the region, there are an estimated 67,900 people in support worker-type roles, representing around 36% of the total workforce. There are an estimated 1, 450 assistant practitioners in the South West of England.

Specifically, the research explores the effectiveness of the Higher Apprenticeship (HA), along with the foundation degree qualification (which is often nested in the HA or dual awarded) as the education pathway for these roles, as well as the route that involves undertaking a HA using a diploma via the qualifications and curriculum framework (QCF).

The Findings:

The report finds evidence that the Level 4 education route (such as higher apprenticeship frameworks and foundation degrees), combined with classroom training and on-the-job training, is helping to develop the semi-autonomous workforce that employers need. Interestingly,

  • Employers interviewed observed that during the course, candidates were engaging in their work at a higher level. When they had completed courses, they were able to undertake a wider range of tasks with a greater degree of autonomy.
  • Almost all respondents reported feeling significantly challenged in the first year of study. However, after support and perseverance, most felt a step change both in their knowledge and understanding and, most importantly, how they were able to make a greater contribution to their workplaces.
  • For those candidates who undertook the higher apprenticeship after decades in health care assistant (HCA) type roles, being given the opportunity for higher level study was significant, unlocking potential and bolstering hands-on experience with intellectual rigour.
  • Many of the candidates interviewed were more mature and had dependents and financial responsibilities such as rent or a mortgage. So, for these people, the ability to “earn and learn” was a significant factor in being able to undertake the qualification.

Overall, the report findings demonstrate a clear understanding of the role and position that assistant practitioners occupy in the workforce landscape amongst employers and their candidates. This wide understanding is encouraging for those wishing to see the role become more commonplace in the UK health system.

However, the research, in line with national studies, does highlight instances where the role is less established and still in development. It is evident that employers and departments who have used the assistant practitioner role undertake a significant learning curve in their first year of introduction and there is a long way to go to make these roles a matter of course in the health sector

Ian Wheeler, Head of Research, LMI and Evaluation at Skills for Health comments, “Staffing is the single largest item on the health sector’s balance sheet and as such, one of the greatest conundrums for this sector is how people can be developed and utilised to help meet the demand to deliver more high quality care for less. A key feature of this debate is how to make better use of the pool of highly motivated and loyal “non-registered” support workers.

“We found a real positivity amongst those we interviewed. There was a sense that not only does the Assistant Practitioner role have positive outcomes for employers in terms of increased productivity and efficiency, but individuals also benefit enormously on a personal level.”