• Apprenticeship levy scheme has subsidised employers’ training since April 2017
  • But NHS Providers says trusts face “barriers” from “extra costs”
  • Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership also raised concerns about the levy

Trusts are unable to take full advantage of subsidised training under the government’s apprenticeship levy because the scheme is not flexible, HSJ has been warned.

Under the levy, which was introduced in April 2017, all employers with an annual pay bill of more than £3m are required to pay a levy of 0.5 per cent to the government. Employers can then withdraw this money, plus a 10 per cent top up from the government, to spend on apprenticeship training. These funds must be spent within 24 months.

However, Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said trusts would welcome “greater flexibility” around the use of the scheme, adding the “extra costs” encountered by trusts are often “a barrier to recruiting the number of apprentices needed to support workforce growth”. She said just 1 per cent of the NHS workforce was currently doing an apprenticeship. 

Ms Deakin continued: “The levy cannot be used to pay for the cost of supervision or backfill for apprenticeship nurses’ supernumerary status. And trusts can only share 25 per cent of the value of the scheme in partnership with other local organisations and must sacrifice the remaining 75 per cent if they choose to do this, despite the benefits a shared approach can deliver for system working.”

In its recent board papers, Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership said the levy was ultimately costing the trust as apprentices spent 20-40 per cent of their time outside of the trust on training.

A spokeswoman said: “At present apprenticeship levy funds cannot be used to pay for workforce ‘cover’ (often called ‘backfill’), that is, people employed to cover the work of those released to train.

“The need to cover the workload, whilst apprentices are carrying out ‘off-the-job training’, can result in additional costs.”

The spokeswoman also explained there were other barriers to trusts using their apprenticeship levy funds. 

She said: “It can take time for staff and their line managers to understand, buy in and commit to apprenticeships. Some apprenticeships, such as the nursing apprenticeship, are still being planned and are not yet available.”

Sue Covill, director of development and employment at NHS Employers, said it has argued “for some time” the way employers can use the apprenticeship levy needs to be changed.

“If the government could offer greater flexibility in the way the levy can be used, it would be more viable to make full use of the £200m the NHS contributes to the apprenticeship levy,” Ms Covill said.

She said flexibility could include extending the timeframe to access the funds, use of the levy to fund backfill and for off-the-job training for apprenticeships.

“Apprenticeships are a key way to widen participation and support social mobility within local communities,” she said. “The NHS has a proven track record of developing and supporting work-based learning and we are keen to see this vital work continue.” 

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We’ve worked in partnership with the NHS to develop a range of high quality healthcare apprenticeships including nurse degree apprenticeship, nursing associate and healthcare assistant practitioner, to make sure they can continue to get the skilled workforce they need.”

Amended at 16:56 on 20 August to reflect the DfE’s response