How colleges are managing the Covid-19 healthcare boom

Public recognition of NHS workers has caused a spike in the number of people who want to train in health or social care. Zofia Niemtus explores what colleges can do to meet demand for placements at a time when resources are already depleted
12th February 2021, 12:00am
How Colleges Are Managing The Covid-19 Healthcare Boom
Zofia Niemtus


How colleges are managing the Covid-19 healthcare boom

It will be one of the most enduring images of the coronavirus pandemic: people standing on their doorsteps, banging pots and pans, and clapping in support of the NHS. While the "clap for carers" initiative has fallen out of favour as the pandemic has progressed, the effect of those Thursday nights spent applauding was felt across the country.

For those isolating alone, it was a reminder that they were surrounded by people. For weary key workers, heading home from long shifts, it provided a much-needed boost. And for some people, it seems that the applause might even have inspired a new career.

Data suggests that, far from being put off by the challenges of Covid-19, more people are interested in joining health and social care professions now than they were before the pandemic began.

The latest figures from Ucas show a 26 per cent increase in acceptances on nursing and midwifery courses compared with the previous year, and the number of new nursing applications to English providers during the first lockdown period (23 March to 30 June 2020) was nearly double the number from the same period in 2019.

It's a trend that's being seen in further education, too. Lisa O'Loughlin, principal of Manchester College, says that they're currently experiencing a "boom in applications" for health and social care courses, with applications for courses beginning in September 2021 currently 20 per cent higher than they were at this point last year. There was also a "significant increase" in those beginning the level 3 access to nursing course in January, despite the fact that all teaching is taking place online.

Key-worker kudos

But is it fair to attribute this spike to the effects of Covid-19? O'Loughlin says the changing status of healthcare professions amid the pandemic is undoubtedly a factor.

"We all know people who have been touched by Covid," she says. "And there's been so much positive press about the NHS and its status in society now. I think maybe we'd lost that a little bit prior to this."

Ben Blocksidge, head of public services of Bolton College, agrees. "Covid has really bought into the limelight just how important these roles are," he says. "I'm glad the kudos of these positions has improved, certainly from the public's perception."

At Bolton College, health and social care courses have doubled in size in the past two years. And, with no clear end to the pandemic in sight, the whole further education sector may need to prepare for what could be a long-term shift in demand for these courses.

According to a report published in September by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and the NHS Confederation, 1.3 million people will need to enter health and social care jobs by 2033-34, in order to meet the growing demand caused by the pandemic. But how can colleges meet the increased demand at a time when resources are already stretched?

At Bolton College, staff are offering a range of courses to serve learners at every level, from four-week non-accredited "come and find out about" courses for beginners through to degree-level courses, owing to a partnership with the University of Bolton.

Long-standing links with the local hospital are also a huge benefit, Blocksidge explains.

"About four or five years ago, the hospital came to us and said, 'we're recruiting for nurses in the Philippines and really what we want is Bolton people working in Bolton Hospital'," he says.

The resulting partnership supports learners from the beginning of their journey into roles at the hospital. Last year, 10 students made this transition, having started on "find out about" courses two years ago.

"The idea is that they come into us at 16, they do a health and social care or nursing course, then they go on to a nursing degree. They stay at Bolton Hospital in the placement, all the way through. And, hopefully, the outcome is that they get a job as a nurse in hospital afterwards," says Blocksidge.

But this pipeline has been temporarily shut down by the pandemic, with all hospital placements cancelled until further notice.

"[The pandemic is] killing work experience, really decimating it," Blocksidge says. "It's having a massive effect because we can't expect our young people, or adults, to put themselves in that position even though they're working to support key workers."

In addition, he says, the hospital is finding it harder to accommodate students, as staff are already "so overrun".

However, some students on placement in care homes have been able to continue, as they already had part-time jobs there, separate from their college work.

"Some of our learners get part-time jobs in care homes after doing work experience and, obviously, we can't tell them they can't go into their job, so they are still working part-time and potentially doing a few more hours.

"We've had some quite heroic learners who have worked in care homes almost permanently through lockdown, fitting it in around their studies online, and living somewhere else to protect their family because they're working in a care home.

"They're that passionate about working and about the career they're going into," says Blocksidge.

For the majority of learners, though, there's no option but to wait until the world opens up again for work experience to resume. Lessons are continuing as usual, on the normal timetable, via online learning, so they're "still getting that interaction with the teacher, and their work and their classmates", Blocksidge points out. But this is no substitute for the practical experience that these courses rely upon.

Bolton College is finding ways around this issue as best it can. Some qualifications have already been confirmed as delayed while, for others, the college is hoping to be able to offer block placements after Easter to fill the gaps. In the meantime, they are trying to offer "as many meaningful encounters with employers as possible".

"We get speakers, and we can link up with care homes and medical placements online, so we're speaking to people in industry remotely and bringing them on to Zoom calls," says Blocksidge.

Manchester College is facing similar problems. O'Loughlin says that while many nursing and healthcare work placements were able to resume between September and Christmas last year, they have now been placed on hold for four weeks as a series of in-depth risk assessments are completed.

These are being put together by college staff, in line with safe working practices, then reviewed by the wider staff from the college group, employers and unions to make sure all bases are covered.

It's an "incredibly sophisticated risk-assessment process", O'Loughlin explains, adding that where any element of a placement is not agreed by all to be safe, students simply won't go out.

'The wages are scandalous'

But in the licensed practice qualifications, such as nursing, placements are being maintained as much as possible. According to O'Loughlin, students are eager to continue, so their qualifications aren't postponed. And, meanwhile, Covid is also reshaping the curriculum.

"We've built in additional academic modules about it," O'Loughlin says. On access courses, these include extra health and safety study around infection control and, for the higher-level study, there are now Covid-related units looking at elements such as the science of viruses and cell biology.

"We believe that arming students with as much technical scientific knowledge as possible will prepare them better for work," says O'Loughlin.

As well as building in Covid-related units designed to help students keep themselves safe in the workplace, the college is working hard to address the psychological impact of working under the strains of a pandemic by building in work around mental health and resilience building.

"We've always done a lot of preparation with students before they head off to their industry placements - psychologically, academically and technically - to give them that confidence level. And so this year, that's meant a lot of work around developing their understanding of Covid and risk assessment, and getting them involved in that process," O'Loughlin explains.

"We do have some students who are nervous and we always take that into account before sending them out into the workplace, but we're doing that preparatory work."

Similar processes are taking place in Bolton, with the extra time away from placements being used to further hone employability skills.

"We're getting them employment ready, so that the time they're not actually out there is being used to build on those skills - what we used to call the 'soft skills'," Blocksidge says. That means extra focus on communication, team working and looking to the future.

"We have career coaches helping out as well - we're doing everything around the work placement, other than the actual workplace, so our learners are super ready before they get going."

Ultimately, both Blocksidge and O'Loughlin admit that it is difficult to provide students with the experience they need under the current circumstances, but the colleges are doing the best they can because they recognise how important it is to train people to enter these professions. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how much society depends on health and care work - something that is not currently reflected in pay for the sector.

"The wages are scandalous for the lower levels in the NHS and care," says Blocksidge.

O'Loughlin agrees that this is something that needs to change. Nevertheless, despite concerns about pay, O'Loughlin is glad to see more students wanting to pursue such essential careers. She sees the shift as one of the positive changes to come out of the pandemic.

"Obviously we're all hopeful that this pandemic will come to an end but viruses are going to be a way of life for us, and there's something special about going into a career that is absolutely going to be needed and is also rewarding," she says.

Zofia Niemtus is interim deputy commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 12 February 2021 issue under the headline "Covid crisis sees spike in healthcare course applications"

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