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Government rejects calls to increase nurse apprenticeship levy flexibility

The Government has rejected recommendations to allow greater flexibility in the apprenticeship levy used to fund nurse degree apprenticeships.

Changing apprenticeships’ funding criteria to cover wider costs, such as backfill and apprentice salaries, would ‘quickly make the programme unaffordable, limiting opportunities for future apprentices’, it claimed in a response to recommendations made by the education select committee in December 2018.

The education committee highlighted ways to deliver higher numbers of nursing degree apprenticeships after finding that uptake of the scheme had been too slow, with just 30 starters beginning training up until December 2018.

In its report, they urged the Government to allow employers to use the levy to cover the backfill costs of apprentices. Under current rules the levy can be used to cover costs for 20% of the hours an apprentice spends undertaking off-the-job training, but the Nursing and Midwifery Council insists on nursing apprentices spending 50% of their hours in off-the-job training.

The report, entitled ‘Nursing degree apprenticeships – in poor health’, also recommended that employers should also be granted 48 months to spend their levy funds, doubling the current allotted time of 24 months.  

But the Government disagreed with the recommendation, pointing out that the expiry period had already been increased from 18 months after employer feedback. It said the shorter time limited ‘financial liability should vast amounts of funding remain sitting unused in employers’ accounts’. 

It also disagreed with the committee’s suggestion of raising the £27,000 funding band limit, currently the highest funding band for an apprenticeship programme. It claimed that an increase would, as with improving flexibility of the levy, make the apprenticeships programme ‘unaffordable’ and result in reduced funding for other types of apprenticeships.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and who gave evidence to the committee on the apprenticeship scheme, said the Government response was ‘hugely disappointing’.

He added: ‘Our frustrations with apprenticeships policy and the unwillingness of the Government to reform that policy reflect three facts: the NHS is the largest employer in every part of the country; we are committed to using apprenticeships across our workforce; and we are being priced out of using apprenticeships in some of our areas of greatest need – training extra nurses in particular.

‘I know our concerns are shared by other sectors of the economy, and we are all increasingly worried that the government is unwilling to make sensible changes to the way the levy operates.’