Published: 03/02/2005, Volume II4, No. 5941 Page 37

In recent years, securing suitably qualified and trained finance staff has been a big issue across the NHS, particularly in primary care trusts.

Faced with an overheated market for finance staff, one primary care trust decided it would grow its own - and at the same time improve its diversity record and roots in the local community.

South Birmingham PCT created what it believes is the first finance academy in the NHS just over a year ago. The PCT is one of the largest in the country, with more than 3,500 staff and a budget of£440m. As well as tackling the finance staffing challenges faced by PCTs across the NHS, the academy was seen as a useful aid in consolidating two finance teams following the dissolution of the old health authorities and community trusts.

The first challenge, says finance staff development co-ordinator Hardev Virdee, was involving all the existing staff and showing they were valued.

'The academy grew out of work we had done as a staff group and the idea was trying to get all staff involved. We wanted to show support to staff at all levels.' The academy has a wide scope, ranging from the development of a programme for newly qualified accountants to working with local schools to enthuse teenagers thinking about career options. Hardev says the key principle is that the academy is run by the staff, for the staff.

Much of their work is overseen by the finance staff development group, which studies and agrees all new initiatives for staff development. It is chaired on a rotating basis by a junior employee. The group covers all staff without accountancy qualifications. Senior managers are invited to talk about specific issues, such as Agenda for Change , but Hardev says the group provides an opportunity for the staff to talk freely and openly.

'It gives staff the confidence to discuss issues and to raise concerns they would not feel comfortable discussing in front of senior staff.' The group's work is backed by a staff forum, which has seen many decisions on development devolved down to the staff themselves.

Meetings cover everything from how the department is run to implemention of payment by results. Regular personal development workshops have improved skills in areas such as leadership and communication.

This has given staff at all levels the confidence to take control of their own development, says Hardev.

'We find that where PCTs have difficulty with developing staff it is because the agenda is so big: we are trying to make people more responsible for their own future.' More staff are taking advantage of secondments to other departments, which the academy offers to help broaden experience. In 2001-02, no staff were on secondment; this year there are eight.

The academy is also achieving results in terms of diversity. The trust was aware that ethnic minority finance and accounting graduates were not choosing to work for the NHS in sufficient numbers.

During the first year of its operation, the department's ethnic minority representation rose by 8 per cent. With more than a quarter of the finance team now drawn from ethnic minorities, the department is close to matching the levels of ethnic minority representation in the local population.

The record of improved ethnic minority representation at senior management levels is even more impressive, rising from 8 per cent of senior grades to 20 per cent in the first year.

These figures should improve further in the immediate future: more than 40 per cent of those scheduled to become qualified accountants in the next three years are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Key to the improvement is a training programme for newly qualified accountants. Hardev says: 'These people were qualified by knowledge for management posts but not by experience. The new training programme focused on negotiation and presentation to equip the recent graduates with the skills needed for the more senior posts so they can swiftly move up.' The flow of experienced finance staff to the private sector has been largely reversed, and the academy has forged strong links with community organisations. This has seen it lure trainees from the local university and further education college.

Work placements are offered to secondary school pupils as part of the commitment to putting roots down in the local community. But rather than the filing or odd-jobbing which can befall the unwary pupil on work experience, those working at South Birmingham have a defined programme to follow.

Getting them young, the PCT hopes, will help protect its record of meeting all its financial targets. With new financial challenges such as the arrival of foundation trusts, the academy is seen as a central plank in protecting that record.