When is a consultation not a consultation? When no-one knows it is taking place perhaps, says our correspondent…
This appeared to be the case with the consultation last month by the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (IATE) on a proposal to develop a five-year apprenticeship scheme for pharmacists.
That is until the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, which claimed to have picked up on the consultation via social media, put out a statement and the story was splashed all over the pharmacy press.
It seems pretty clear that the initial notice of the consultation, which closed on April 14, was extremely restricted, and 10 days is hardly a realistic timeframe to conduct such an exercise.
What is even more intriguing is that at the time of writing the composition of the so-called trailblazer group that put the proposal together is still unknown. Boots, Well, Lloydspharmacy, Superdrug … who else? Reticent bunch, aren’t they?
And what about the rather odd responses from the regulator and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society?
Hard to find anything on the GPhC website until you stick ‘apprenticeship’ into the search box, when you find a letter dated April 15 (note this is after the ‘consultation’ closed) addressed ‘to whom it may concern’ at the IATE.
The letter points out that the apprenticeship, if it goes ahead, would only apply in England and that any new programme of education and training needs to be accredited by the GPhC to ensure that it meets its standards. It adds that anyone wishing to be registered as a pharmacist with the GPhC must pass its registration assessment.
However, the GPhC adds: ‘It is not within our remit to decide which courses should be developed; we are required by legislation to accredit any course that meets our standards’.
The RPS in a statement rushed out on April 12 said it was not involved in the submission of the proposal, although it was aware that an apprenticeship proposal was being explored.
The RPS will be feeding in its views at the appropriate time, we were told, leading you to wonder if it knew anything about the consultation either.
The Society has since written to the IATE raising concerns from members. Alleluia – it has remembered what it is there for – although why, if it was aware of the proposal, didn’t it act earlier?
It has asked how the academic content of a degree funded via the apprenticeship levy will be managed.
It has asked about how learners on an apprenticeship programme will be protected from exploitation by their employers, and it has queried the timing of the process, coming as it does alongside GPhC proposed changes to its Initial Education and Training Standards.
If you are a conspiracy theorist this story has it all. You might suspect that the trailblazer group was hoping the consultation might pass under the radar. No chance of that now! And has Health Education England been involved?
Which higher education institutions and professional bodies (if not the GPhC and the RPS) have been consulted? Just who is behind this idea and has it been properly understood?
The PDA, meanwhile, is claiming credit for alerting pharmacists generally to what it says is an ill-conceived proposal with motives which have little or nothing to do with the advancement of the profession or improved patient safety.
The apprenticeship would be led and controlled by employers, leading to a two-tier approach to qualifying as a pharmacist, it says. And wearing its union hat, it suggests that with apprenticeships, entry standards and more broadly the entire initial education and training of pharmacists would be unduly influenced by large corporate employers.
There is nothing new about apprenticeships in pharmacy, though. When I was newly out of university with my BPharm(hons), many of the older pharmacists I worked with had qualified via the apprenticeship route. They were, for the most part, good, solid operators who knew their stuff from years of experience. It was not until 1967 that all those aspiring to practise pharmacy in Britain were required to read for a degree.
But pharmacy has moved on since I was a lad. Then the art of dispensing was still practised and not left to specials manufacturers.
Advances in pharmacology were driving the development of many of the medicines in common use today, and clinical pharmacy was in its infancy. And, apart from branches of Boots and Timothy Whites, multiple pharmacies were rarer than hen’s teeth.
Pharmacy practice is much different today, and I question whether a traditional on-the-job apprenticeship route to qualification is appropriate now, unless…
At one stage of my working life I was for a number of years an NVQ assessor. I can’t say it was an inspiring experience. NVQs seemed to be more about ticking boxes than actually managing and testing learning.
In community pharmacy the whole NVQ process was poorly understood by pharmacy managers – both independent and multiple – and students generally received next to no support – particularly in some multiples.
For those aspiring to become pharmacy technicians (NVQ3) the drop-out rate was worryingly high and the effort required to get students to complete the necessary academic learning in the expected two-year period was considerable – and many students were simply not up to it.
In short, workplace learning in community pharmacies for dispensing technicians didn’t work well then, and I don’t think it does now. But using the apprenticeship levy to fund an accredited MPharm degree course – probably provided by an existing school of pharmacy since there isn’t much point going elsewhere? I can see that could be quite an attractive proposition, if allowed.
It has been claimed that a key driver for the trailblazer companies behind the proposal is to get some value back from the government apprenticeship levy.
The levy is applied to all employers with an annual pay bill of more than £3 million - it is essentially an additional payroll tax set at 0.5% of an employer’s annual pay bill collected through PAYE.
So sign up for an apprenticeship and your employer will get the funding to pay or at least subsidise your student tuition fees while you study for an approved MPharm degree.
You might not have much choice where you study, but as an apprentice/student you have a guaranteed job. It might pay peanuts, but you might emerge after five years with a degree and little or no student debt. It might work for some.
From an employer’s perspective it means they get a (hopefully) competent employee, tied in for at least five years, and some payback from that levy.
But if multiples are claiming that pharmacy apprenticeships could provide a solution to workforce growth and sustainability, then they need to look at themselves more closely. I would suggest that stagnant pay, lack of opportunity and poor working practices are the root cause of problems in recruitment.
So a bit more clarity about exactly how this apprenticeship proposal will work is needed.
Are we really talking about devaluing the profession, or simply some of the larger multiples leveraging the system?
None of this is going to help me source – at sensible prices - naproxen, labetolol, candesartan and the myriad other generics in short supply. Can an apprentice do that for you? If so, I’ll take one on!