Effective training can have far-reaching benefits, as an initiative at one trust has demonstrated

The NHS in England spends nearly£5bn a year training its staff, yet evidence from last year's NHS staff survey shows that nearly 40 per cent of employees did not feel the learning they received helped them do their job better. This represents a substantial waste of time and money.

People make the biggest impact on organisational performance in the NHS. Yet despite the substantial amounts spent on training each year and a large body of evidence that learning improves individual, team and organisational productivity, getting learning right can be a real challenge in the health service. What is effective learning and how can it help deliver improvements in performance?

London South Bank University undertook an independent assessment of a learning programme for support staff delivered at Southern Health and Social Care trust in Newry, Northern Ireland. The programme was built around the six core competencies of the knowledge and skills framework and was aimed at staff in Agenda for Change bands 1-3.

Key outcomes

The evaluation showed the programme had resulted in quantifiable improvements in patient and client care, improved staff motivation, addressed issues around widening participation in learning, improved team working and helped with the appraisal process.

The features and characteristics of the learning programme provide an example of how learning can bring about productivity improvements in the NHS.

Data gathered through interviews, focus group discussions and anonymous questionnaires showed that the learning had delivered seven distinct benefits:

  • increased staff confidence, morale and commitment;

  • improved communication skills;

  • improved and new ways of working;

  • more positive attitudes to learning;

  • better team working;

  • better organisation of work (such as better report writing and planning);

  • greater understanding and support for work processes such as appraisal.

The support staff who completed the training gained a better understanding of patient and client need, identified ways to improve the quality of service, shared information better, were willing to take on new roles and develop themselves further, had increased confidence and were more positive about organisational change. This has helped the trust build capacity to deliver more effective care.

Path to success

Why has the learning at Newry been so successful? While there is evidence, including some from the NHS, that learning can have a positive impact on productivity, the key to success is how learning is structured and delivered. There are a number of characteristics of the learning at Newry that underpin its success, characteristics that are consistent with studies of high-performing organisations more generally:

  • There was a supportive culture within the trust - learners felt the trust valued them and their learning. The trust's partnership with the local further education college and the widening participation unit assisted this.

  • Learners' views were actively sought about their training and they were involved in shaping the programme.

  • The impact of the learning was assessed and evaluated to see whether it delivered enhanced skills and improvements in service.

  • Classroom-based learning was directly related to support staff's real work experiences through assignments and portfolios.

  • Learning was aligned with other human resources interventions such as appraisals.

  • Learning was based on the knowledge and skills framework's six core competencies, which include service improvement, quality and health safety and security.

  • The needs of non-traditional learners, some of whom had previously had negative experiences of learning, were taken into account.

While the training at Newry specifically addressed the needs of support staff, the success criteria outlined above can be applied to training more generally. The NHS needs to improve workforce productivity. Done properly, learning can be an effective lever for improvement.