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BLOG: Ensuring protected learning time for student nursing associates

Professor Geraldine Walters, Director of Education and Standards talks about our plans for regulating nursing associates

In just a few short months we’ll welcome the first qualified nursing associates into the workforce in England, and next week our Council will be asked to approve the final plans for how we’ll regulate this new profession.

Much of what we’ll do will mirror what we have in place for nurses and midwives. Nursing associates will revalidate, their registration fees are the same, and in the rare event that something goes wrong, fitness to practise will be there to look at what happened. But there’s one area where we’re proposing something different and that’s around protected learning time for students.

How protected learning time will differ

Why are we trying something different for nursing associates? Well, uniquely, work-based learning – apprenticeships – are likely to be the main route to this new profession.

As it stands, all pre-registration nursing and midwifery students are ‘supernumerary’ when they’re learning in practice. This means they’re additional to the numbers required for safe staffing in any setting.

This approach will still be available for organisations that train nursing associates, but we’ll give them another option too. One that will give nursing associates the protected time they need to learn, but also give their employers some flexibility to shape how they manage work-based learning. We’ve worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, educators, employers and nurses to develop this new approach.

What matters to us as a regulator, is that students are supervised appropriately and that they have sufficient time to learn. Supernumerary status is one means to this end. But we want to focus on outcomes – and give education providers and employers the chance to show us how they can ensure patient safety and student learning in ways other than supernumerary status.

Under the new option nursing associate students will still be ‘off the job’ for academic study and placements that broaden their experience beyond their normal place of work. But when learning in their own workplace, they’ll be able count time protected for learning towards our programme hours whether or not they’re supernumerary. Importantly, students will still need to be appropriately supervised when they’re working towards meeting our standards.

Employer responsibilities for protecting learning

This freedom comes with responsibilities. Education providers and their partners need to be realistic about the amount of learning time they can protect, and clear about what students will learn in practice. Our checks will need to focus doubly hard on making sure students get the time and support they need. This includes making sure students can voice concerns and that employers raise and respond to challenges that could put learning at risk.

Employers know the benefits of investing in the development of staff with great potential but they also need to understand the costs associated with this so that they can plan effectively. This alternative way of ensuring protected learning time will give employers a better sense of those upfront costs associated with nursing associate apprenticeships. They’ll be able to assess the pressures on wards, clinics, surgeries, homes and teams when they’re thinking about how to support nursing associate students properly.

Student nursing associates will also need to be active participants in their learning. They’ll need to put themselves forward for opportunities and to speak up if they are not getting the breadth and quality of experience they need to meet our standards.

The future of learning in practice

We all know the whole health and care system is under pressure. We hope that this new approach helps us to play a part in responding to these pressures while keeping people safe and supporting student learning.

As with anything new we’ll monitor it closely and evaluate how it works in practise. This will give us a better idea whether it’s something that might work for other work-based training routes.

Looking to the future, the real costs of practice placements must be properly met if we want health and care professionals to have high quality, ‘on the job’ learning. No matter where students learn, there must be enough staff with the right skills to make sure nurses, midwives and nursing associates never have to choose between caring for patients and supporting students. 


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