NHS workforce plan: what’s in it for nursing and future students?
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NHS workforce plan: what’s in it for nursing and future students?

Shruti Sheth Trivedi Senior news reporter, RCNi

Critics say the plan lacks clarity on how extra nurses will be trained and paid for, and a strategy to retain experienced staff is needed

The long-awaited NHS workforce plan, now published years after it was promised, has been met with scepticism over how its commitments will be delivered.

Learning Disability Practice. 26, 4, 6-7. doi: 10.7748/ldp.26.4.6.s2

Published: 07 August 2023

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Picture credit: Barney Newman

The plan was commissioned by the government to address the chronic workforce crisis in the NHS in England. Promised about six years ago and initially due to be published in 2020, it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 151-page document, overseen by NHS England, sets out how many nurses and other healthcare staff will be needed in the health service in England in the next 15 years, backed by £2.4 billion in government funding for additional training places over the next five years.

Recruitment pledge

With about 40,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS in England, the government has pledged to recruit up to 190,000 more nurses by 2037, reduce over-reliance on international recruits, and cut spending on agency staff.

The plan promises to create thousands more training places for nurses and nursing associates to help make this happen, and vows to ramp up nursing apprenticeships so students can ‘earn while they learn’.

The government says the plan will be reviewed and refreshed at least every two years to ensure it keeps pace with NHS staff and patient requirements. The RCN and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) were among 66 other organisations asked to provide evidence to inform the development of the plan.

Learning disabilities

To achieve its ambitious staffing targets, the government has promised a large increase in nurse training places. The plan says it aims to boost overall nurse education places to more than 53,800 by 2031-32 – an 80% increase. This move would include almost doubling the number of adult nursing places to nearly 38,000, a 92% rise.

The plan says that in the next five years, training places for mental health nursing will increase to 7,902, up 38% from 2022 numbers, and education places for learning disability nursing will rise to 794, up 46%. Further increases in these fields will follow by 2031-32, it says, with mental health nurse training places up by 93% on 2022 numbers to more than 11,000, and learning disability nursing places doubled to more than 1,000.

Children’s nurses

There is no increase planned in children’s nursing places, which are estimated to remain at about 3,800 by 2031-32. The government says its assessment shows there are sufficient numbers of training places to meet demand for children’s nursing, but this will be kept under review.

District nurses

District nurse training places are intended to increase by 152% by 2031-32, to 1,787. These figures have been kept separate and are not included in the increases in overall nurse training places, but it is unclear why. They have been grouped with training plans for health visitors and qualified school nurses.

Recruitment of NHS nurses and nursing associates

Nurses:

  • » The workforce plan for England pledges to recruit 170,000-190,000 more nurses by 2037

  • » The plan estimates this will take the overall number of nurses from nearly 350,000 at present to between 545,000 and 565,000 by 2036-37 – between 25,000 and 45,000 more nurses than would be reached with the 170,000-190,000 extra set out in the plan

Nursing associates:

  • » The plan pledges to increase training places for nursing associates (NAs) to 10,500 by 2031-32

  • » The government says it will work towards this by training 5,000 NAs a year in 2023-24 and 2024-25, increasing to 7,000 a year by 2028-29

  • » The plan estimates there will be more than 64,000 NAs working in the NHS by 2036-37, compared with 4,600 at present

Apprenticeships

Alongside a dramatic increase in university places, the workforce plan also promises the biggest-ever expansion of NHS apprenticeships – particularly in nursing – to help cover workforce shortfalls. The boost in apprenticeship numbers is intended to help enable the increase in nurse training places and entice potential new nurses with the ability to earn while they learn.

The stated aim is to have 20% of registered nurses – or about 8,800 – qualifying through nursing apprenticeships by 2028-29, compared with 9% at present. This represents 20% of adult nurses, 33% of learning disability nurses and 28% of mental health nurses. There is no planned increase for children’s apprenticeship places.

Further modelling in the plan indicates that, by 2031-32, two in five learning disability nurses and almost one in three adult and mental health nurses could train via a degree-level apprenticeship route.

Placements

The government has also said it will work with the NMC on cutting the number of placement hours students need to qualify by more than 20%, from 2,300 to 1,800. It suggests this could reduce pressure on learners, while ‘significantly’ increasing placement capacity across the NHS.

Across the UK

The NHS workforce plan only applies in England. Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are devolved, so decisions about health and care workforce planning are made individually.

The national workforce strategy for the NHS in Scotland published in 2022 pledged to expand its NHS workforce by 1% – the equivalent of about 1,800 full-time posts – in the next five years.

A similar plan was published by the NHS in Wales in February to help ‘accelerate’ the country’s ten-year workforce strategy for health and social care published in 2020.

Northern Ireland published its last workforce plan in 2018, setting out the government’s ambitions to 2026.

Find out more

NHS England (2023) NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.

This is an abridged version of an article at rcni.com/workforce-plan-students

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