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How apprenticeships can work in GP practices

Apprenticeships give young people the opportunity to learn new skills, while practices benefit from a new addition to the team. Radhika Holmström reports.

Apprenticeships can work well in GP practices (Picture: iStock)
Apprenticeships can work well in GP practices (Picture: iStock)

‘You do have to invest time in an apprentice, but you can do other jobs at the same time. And they’re not just sitting and watching either,’ says Jayne Wharton, who is the practice manager at a Tideswell Surgery, a dispensing practice near Buxton in the Peak District.

‘They need to be doing specific tasks, because that is the best way to learn. You also need to have everyone in the practice on board, including the doctors – the GPs have to understand that this person is an apprentice and can’t necessarily do everything they’re asked to do immediately.’

Most GP practices are extremely busy, complicated places where practice and dispensary staff are expected to be highly skilled, able to keep patient confidentiality and at the same time manage patients’ (and occasionally doctors’) demands.

Introducing an apprentice into this mix can be a daunting prospect: but as Ms Wharton and others have discovered, it can also be well worth doing, from everyone’s point of view. She and her colleagues have been working with apprentices for around five years now, and feels that the practice has really benefited from being part of the scheme.

What are apprenticeships?

Part of the confusion is that apprenticeships – in their modern form – aren’t all that well known (it is easy to get them confused with work experience placements).

The National Apprenticeship Service describes apprenticeships as work-based training programmes ‘designed by the Sector Skills Councils around the needs of employers, which lead to national recognised qualifications’.

They can be offered to new or existing employees, and can be at ‘intermediate’, ‘advanced’ or ‘higher’ level, working towards different qualifications. The training is usually delivered in conjunction with a college or specialist trainer – especially with smaller employers.

‘Sometimes, all the training is delivered and assessed by an external provider; at other times it’s a mix, but additional elements like functional skills in English and Maths are almost always delivered externally,’ explains Angelo Varetto from Skills for Health, the Sector Skills Council that develops apprenticeship frameworks for ‘healthcare occupations’.  

There is some funding available for training costs for younger apprentices; otherwise, employers pay the salary, which is usually either the national minimum wage for apprentices (there is a specific rate for this group) or slightly above.

Apprentices in GP practices

In GP practices, there’s a whole raft of apprenticeships that might be appropriate, from actually delivering healthcare, for example working towards becoming a healthcare assistant, to business management, Mr Varetto suggests.  There is also some support available for employers, through the National Apprenticeship Service’s regional advisers.

In all cases, though, he points out, ‘It’s a partnership between the employer, the training provider and the apprentice, and employers should be involved in recruitment rather than leaving it to providers.’

Ms Wharton agrees: ‘You have to make sure when you interview potential apprentices that you get the right person. We’ve got a deliberately quite lengthy job description, so that they realise that there is a lot involved when they start work here. And when you do take someone on, they have to be closely managed for the first three months and be with someone all the time.’   

At Ms Wharton’s practice, around eight admin staff usually work across both reception and the dispensary. These were the people immediately involved in training up a new apprentice, but it was also crucial that medical staff in the practice were on board. ‘We discussed it with everyone, and everyone wanted to be involved.’

Support for employers

The practice first found out about apprenticeship schemes from the Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce, although Ms Wharton says that the National Apprenticeship Service website is also a useful source of information.

The chamber of commerce was supportive throughout the whole process of recruiting and training the apprentice.

Once the practice had decided to take on an apprentice, Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce advertised the post, using a job description supplied by Ms Wharton. The chamber also conducted the first round of interviews and then Ms Wharton interviewed the shortlist. Businesses wanting to take on an apprentice can also advertise vacancies on the Apprenticeships website.

The chamber of commerce then supported all the training, helping to devise the NVQs and providing a trainer. ‘It’s quite rural, where we are, and it’s quite a long way to Chesterfield, so the trainers came and helped the apprentices here, and if there was any particlular exam they’d go to local offices to take them,’ Ms Wharton says. Training was also available online.  

The apprentice worked between 31 and 33 hours a week, which included some of their training. They started off earning £95 a week, which then was increased as they progressed and gained new skills.

Benefits of an apprentice

Ms Wharton says the benefits of having an apprentice far outweighed the time that staff have to invest in training and support. The apprentice effectively becomes an extra resource for the practice.

Tideswell Surgery’s first apprentice stayed for a couple of years – picking up considerable amounts of training and qualifications along the way.

‘She redesigned all the posters in the waiting room, with travel vaccinations in one room and flu in another, and then she trained in admin, doing all the correspondence. She moved on to another practice because she needed a full-time job,' says Ms Wharton.

‘She worked in the dispensary in her second year with us and did the level 2 in dispensing qualifications. Any courses that were appropriate to her we’d pay for her to do, so she left with qualifications, lots of training and masses of experience.'

The practice is now training up a new apprentice, and practice managers at other surgeries in the area have been taking them on as well.

The original reason Ms Wharton and her colleagues took on an apprentice was because they wanted to pass on their own skills. ‘Between us, we have a lot of experience and knowledge, and we wanted to pass this on by training up someone.’

But they also gained a lot too. ‘Our first apprentice helped changed the whole ethos of the practice: we all became eager to do things. We tend to get a bit "been there, done that". Someone with fresh ideas and enthusiasm is a great shake-up.’

The result has been a qualified, experienced young person who was able to use her skills to benefit the practice and has now gone on to work in another local surgery. However, Ms Wharton points out that many of the skills that apprentices learn in GP practices can be applied to other settings as well.

Indeed the apprenticeship scheme has been such a success for Tideswell Surgery that Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce put the practice forward for an National Apprenticeship Service small business award, which they won for the East Midlands area last year.

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