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Flexibility and innovation – a nursing partnership that opens doors

Apprentice nurse

The Open University (OU) is working with Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust (KCHFT) to develop the local nursing workforce. Through the OU’s Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship and Nursing Associate Higher Apprenticeship, the Trust is able to grow its own talent with its new, innovative Nursing Academy. This allows apprentices to earn while they learn and study towards registered nursing roles.

KCHFT provides wide-ranging NHS care for people in the community, in a range of settings including people’s own homes, nursing homes, health clinics, community hospitals, minor injury units and in mobile units.

It is one of the largest NHS community health providers in England, serving a population of about 1.4 million across Kent and 600,000 in East Sussex and London. KCHFT employs more than 5,000 staff, including doctors, community nurses, physiotherapists, dietitians and many other healthcare professionals.

Dr Mercia Spare, KCHFT’s Chief Nurse (Interim) said: “There are a number of challenges for developing the nursing workforce, especially across Kent and Medway. Firstly, there's a shortage of nurses available to come into the profession. The second is around the attractiveness of nursing and the routes in. Latterly they've been through academia which doesn't suit a lot of people in terms of going along that route. Then you've got local competition for services. Within Kent Medway, we have a number of healthcare providers and all fishing from the same workforce pond. And then you have the retention piece, actually keeping people in."

I think the OU is an important partner because it gives us a flexibility that you wouldn't have with another partner. Because it's distance learning, it opens doors to a range of people who would have been precluded from going through a traditional university route. You can earn and learn, and I think that has been the fundamental positive in how we've worked with The Open University to address some of our workforce challenges.

Dr Mercia Spare, Chief Nurse (Interim), Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust

Gill Blackman-Cross, Learning Environment Lead for the Nursing Academy explained how the programme works: “They basically have one study day a week. That has to be negotiated with the staff on the ward to fit in with the service needs. The OU has got a really robust and validated programme and I think there's so many opportunities to learn things online. There's a lot of reference points they can be signposted to, such as reference books and practical teaching sessions. They have online tutorials and it's a really varied programme that they really enjoy having, so it's not just sitting down, undertaking a lecture, going home and writing an essay."

Initially nurses on the OU programmes would learn their clinical skills from the OU website. But obviously you've got the theory, but you need to actually utilise it in practice. Most of their clinical skills will be undertaken within base. They will have to undertake a care certificate and they’ll have to undertake competency-based procedures and then be signed off accordingly.

Gill Blackman-Cross, Learning Environment Lead for the Nursing Academy, Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust

Gill added: “The practical and the clinical skills work in partnership between the OU and us at the KCHFT Nursing Academy. We support the students by providing learning opportunities within our simulation suite and within the Academy. When they go into placements, they're being offered the opportunity to learn new skills and undertake new experiences, so they're being supported by not only the Nursing Academy, but also by the Trust in the different placements.”

Through the Nursing Academy, KCHFT is supporting almost 50 Registered Nurse and Nursing Associates as the programmes continue to thrive.

Cassie previously worked as a community nursery nurse within a health visiting team, but took the opportunity offered by KCHFT to enrol on the Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship.

Open University Staff Tutor, Nerys Bolton, who ensures the quality of the programme’s delivery at the Trust, said: “Cassie is doing really well on the apprenticeship programme. She's enjoying all the different exposures that she's getting in relation to different practice experiences and what we're finding is that she's taking that learning and putting that straight back into a working environment.”

Cassie added: “I've received very positive feedback from my colleagues. Some of them come out and observe me and they are noticing that I'm improving my confidence and my communication skills. I'm able to explain procedures to my patients and tell them why I'm doing what I'm doing.”

On the Nursing Associate Higher Apprenticeship, Kerry is working towards the qualification after working in catering and having a family. The flexibility offered by the OU is vital in helping her to juggle her responsibilities and role at the Trust.

Kerry said: “Being a mother, financially, going to university wouldn't have been an option for childcare and financial reasons. The apprenticeship seemed the best way because I could learn and earn at the same time. The learning is very flexible for me. I can still go to work, come home, be with my children and spend the time that they need with me.

“When I graduate there'll be such a huge sense of achievement for me because I love challenging myself and getting back onto that career ladder and making my way up.”

Staff Tutor Nerys Bolton said: “Kerry is really enjoying the opportunity that's been given to her. She, like with many of our students, comes with a very different story to how she got here, and it's really important that we support that. She's enjoying all the placements and enjoying the variety that she's been offered and she's also engaging with those different environments and creating her own learning.”

Late last year, Baroness Dido Harding was at the Nursing Academy in Coxheath, near Maidstone, to see it in action and to unveil a plaque. She and other guests met students and staff before touring the clinical skills lab and listening to a presentation by two students on OU programmes.

Through the partnership with the OU, many more nurses will follow the path of Cassie and Kerry into registered nursing roles – helping the Trust grow its own talent and serve the local community.

Dr Mercia Spare concluded: “They make a contribution every single time they put their uniform. I think they enhance what we do at KCHFT, they bring a different view. It's a different way of training to be a nurse and I think that makes us richer as a workforce.”