An extraordinary project is taking shape in Glasgow. The new South Glasgow hospital, due to open its doors in 2015, will be the largest critical care complex in Scotland and one of the most advanced in the UK. The vast main building will provide 1,109 beds, and the children's hospital another 256.
In all, a total of 10,000 staff will be required to ensure the smooth running of this leviathan organisation - and meeting this demand is one of the biggest challenges facing the region's education system.
Glasgow Clyde College is already working closely with the National Health Service board for Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHS GGC) to meet the skills requirements of the pound;842 million super-hospital. The newly merged college is acting as education provider for the board's modern apprenticeship scheme, and the two organisations also cooperate on a number of other projects.
This arrangement was formalised in 2010 with the setting up of a landmark partnership, in conjunction with other educational providers in the area, to ensure that local training matched the needs of the burgeoning health-care sector.
But, of course, the partnership's task is far from simple. Lyndsay Lauder, head of workforce planning and development at NHS GGC, points to ever-evolving technologies and a change in the culture of patient expectation.
"The kind of roles and the kind of skills [that] we are going to need are different from what our staff have now. We realised that our relationship with the university and the college sector was absolutely key in that," she says.
"We got the main providers of education and training for our staff around a table with other partners like Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and worked through what we wanted to look at. It is about seeing what kind of education and training our staff are going to need, not just today but in the future, and how we can deliver that."
Plumbed-in health care
The partnership is an early example of the sort of close cooperation between employers and colleges envisaged by the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.
The collaboration goes far beyond the management teams, with representatives from right across the partner organisations meeting regularly. "College science staff meet science staff from the health board, and estates people from the college meet health board estates people," says Susan Walsh, principal of Glasgow Clyde College.
A focus on estates may sound strange in a health-care context but it does make sense, Lauder explains. "Modern hospitals are completely different from the old, Victorian hospitals of the past, from the electrics to the physical structures and plumbing. Our estates staff need to be trained in a completely different way. So we have created modern apprenticeships," she says.
The college offers training, assessment and support for apprenticeships in roles ranging from clinical support worker to payroll trainee, receptionist to plumber. NHS GGC is also moving towards providing internships for higher national diploma students and graduates.
And that's not all. For adults aged 18-24 who have learning difficulties, there is Project Search, which aims to improve job prospects by guiding its students through hospital work placements in areas such as catering, portering and support facilities.
And colleges across Scotland have realised that other health boards have similar needs. Walsh says reports such as Health Improvement Scotland's recent survey of patient care in Lanarkshire show that serious health-care concerns have to be addressed. The partnership between the NHS and colleges is an opportunity to tackle those issues and "get it right", she stresses.
Sybil Lang, health education development officer for the College Development Network, agrees. She says it is important that health boards and colleges work together to ensure that workers can move between regions and that skills needs are met in every part of the country. "We have to look beyond our own boards," she stresses.
Moves have already been made in this direction. A national care strategy steering group was formed four years ago "when we started to pick up intelligence that the territorial boards were all facing similar problems", Walsh says.
The group comprises college principals, health boards, NHS Education Scotland, Universities Scotland, the Scottish government health directorate, employer organisation Skills For Health and the Scottish Social Services Council.
To ensure that training across Scotland is aligned with the needs of the health sector, the steering group is planning new qualifications and phasing out or rewriting old ones. A new Higher National Certificate (HNC) in care and administrative practice has been developed to meet the changing requirements of the workforce, where staff trained to support registered professionals are needed in ever greater numbers.
The new course combines a number of compulsory modules in core skills, such as safe working practices, with optional modules that vary depending on the route a student wants to take and the final qualification they are seeking.
From this summer, the new qualification will be delivered in every Scottish college region. "If you embed it within [the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework], which the whole sector is familiar with, the sector can look at it and understand it," says Eleanor Harris, depute and vice-principal, curriculum, at Glasgow Clyde College.
With the new HNC, students will be able to work not just for the NHS but in the voluntary and independent sectors too - and in a number of different areas. The qualification provides training for roles such as senior health care support worker or assistant practitioner, as well as senior clerical and administrative positions.
NHS GGC's Lauder explains: "They [the students] are not nurses or paramedics, they sit below a qualified nurse. In a surgical setting, for example, they can do different tasks under the supervision of a registered practitioner."
If students want to undertake further study, the qualification allows them to access degree programmes in nursing at a number of universities. They can also transfer with advanced standing to other relevant degrees, such as public services at the University of the West of Scotland. Walsh says the aim is to create pathways from school to the National Certificate, HNC and degree level.
But the steering group's work goes beyond establishing new qualifications, she stresses. "Those doing the HNC are at a disadvantage. They don't get a bursary like first years at university. They also don't have their uniforms paid for. There is a disparity and an inequality with first-year degree students. This is one of the issues the steering group is looking at."
And there could be even more to come: health boards have "really bought into" the partnership, Harris says. "It feels like the health sector has just found the college sector and what we can do."