The questions answered about apprenticeships have raised even more serious concerns

Following on from the loud and clear concerns expressed by 98% of 6000+ respondents to the initial proposals of a group of pharmacy employers to enable the creation of pharmacists by an apprenticeship route, the proposal is now going back to the drawing board.

Tue 23rd July 2019 The PDA

Following an emergency meeting hosted by PDA in Birmingham on 2nd May, a key conclusion was that a wider stakeholder meeting should be held enabling a broader section of the profession to ask detailed questions.

This meeting was arranged by Skills for Health. Our attendance was not an indication of support, but more an opportunity to gather more information and keep members informed. This meeting provided much clarification and in so doing raised further, our concerns.

The discussions on July 18th involved approximately 50 representatives from the following organisations;

  • Interested employers/employer group (community, NHS, MoD)
  • Association of independent Multiples
  • British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association
  • Company Chemists Association
  • General Pharmaceutical Council
  • Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists
  • Health Education England
  • Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education
  • National Pharmacy Association
  • Pharmacists’ Defence Association
  • Pharmacy Schools Council
  • Royal Pharmaceutical Society
  • Skills for Health
  • UK Black Pharmacists Association
  • United Kingdom Clinical Pharmacy Association

At the very outset of the meeting, before any discussions had started, it was made clear that NHSE, NHSI, and HEE are all “professionally agreed” that the apprenticeship is a good thing and should be explored. Concerns were immediately expressed by some delegates attending that with 6,000 members of the profession indicating their disapproval of the scheme, NHSE would have an uphill struggle to force these proposals through.

Their agenda involved presentations from IfATE, HEE, members of the employer’s group behind this proposal, GPhC, and a case study from the introduction of an apprenticeship by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA). There were also some themed table group discussions and panel Q&As.

PDA members will recall that the profession was told that the proposals had certain objectives;

1. To fill a skills gap in the profession.

2. a) To allow access to the profession to those individuals that otherwise, perhaps because they came from less privileged backgrounds would not be able to become pharmacists as they may be unable to proceed through the classical university route.

b) A subtext to this (given by some of the employers) was that pharmacy appeared to have become a less popular option for university choices and that an apprenticeship would improve the access to graduation in pharmacy.

3. To help some employers to recruit and retain pharmacists in hard to fill areas.

As the proposals were pressure tested the following emerged;

1. There was in fact no identifiable skills gap in the profession; this was erroneous.

2. Examples were given by delegates in attendance, some of whom had come from what might be considered the underprivileged backgrounds that the employers were referring to, that demonstrated that mechanisms already existed that would enable access to university places to train as pharmacists.

3. A theory was put forward that the reason that pharmacy was becoming a less popular choice for university places was that because the salaries for pharmacists currently being paid were around 30% lower than was the case 15 years ago. This coupled with the lack of professional fulfilment in the community pharmacy setting and the dangerous workload levels meant that pharmacy was no longer seen as the professionally and financially fulfilling career that it may have been during the ’80s and ’90s. This was made worse (in England) by the NHS remuneration settlements of the last three years. A career in pharmacy’s largest sector and ambitions of pharmacy ownership were now questionable.

4. It was suggested that if the employers wanted to recruit and retain pharmacists (in hard to fill or indeed in any geographical areas) and stop them from taking on more professionally fulfilling roles in GP practices, creating more routes into the profession was not the answer. They needed to make community pharmacy a more professionally and financially fulfilling role.

5. During an employer’s panel session debate, it became clear that any improved retention hopes that they had would not work in practice as newly qualified pharmacists would always seek out (and should not be prevented from doing so) more attractive employment options.

Additional concerns

Confusion amongst the employer group

There was a substantial divergence of opinion between some of the employers currently involved in the proposal.

One community pharmacy employer indicated that the only possible way to introduce an apprenticeship would be if the four-year degree course was left in the hands of the Pharmacy schools. The pre-reg year would then be turned into the ‘apprenticeship practice year’. This would be described as an 80/20 arrangement. Another indicated that the only way an apprenticeship could be viable for the employers was with a 50/50 arrangement. Many of the meeting delegates failed to understand how a currently packed four-year undergraduate course could ever be squeezed into effectively two and a half years at a School of pharmacy.

The experience of apprenticeships for solicitors

‘Absorbing the culture of the employer’ and forming lawyers ‘in the image of the employer’ were given as reasons why the apprenticeship scheme for lawyers was successful. These very same reasons are the reasons why such an approach will not work in pharmacy as here, the training must be multi-sectoral.

Next steps

The employer group will now be considering whether to continue the process and submit a new apprenticeship proposal document. Attendees were assured that they would be alerted to future consultations.

PDA view

The PDA would like to see all pre-regs employed by the NHS with placements in all major sectors overseen by a national quality assured programme. This has already been agreed in Scotland and recently in Wales. We would like to see a structured career framework leading to fulfilment for our members. Whilst HEE has produced Advancing pharmacy education and training: a review which goes some way towards proposing how both pharmacist and pharmacy technician education and training should be changed, the PDA does not believe that a pharmacist apprenticeship is a necessary addition to the suggested changes. Any proposal to implement an apprenticeship route for poorly thought out reasons is premature and runs the risk of failing apprentices and damaging the profession.

Conclusion

The apprenticeship scheme is still at the proposal stage. Until it has passed this stage and the employer group has formulated the Occupational Standard, there is no way of knowing exactly how the scheme will look. It was interesting to note the huge divergence in views amongst the employer group. Should the process continue to the Occupational Standard stage, there will be two longer consultations. The PDA will continue to keep members informed.

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