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‘Our virtual academy helps students overcome geography’

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Cornwall’s health and care partners devised an online solution to a growing skills shortage.

  • Project name: Virtual health and social care academy
  • Objectives: Tackling the shortage of people training for a career in health and care in Cornwall
  • Timescale: First students arrive in September, and then ongoing
  • Number of staff working on project: Five, plus support
  • Outcome sought: a skilled and trained workforce to meet the future demand for care
  • Helen Charlesworth-May, strategic director, adult social care and health, Cornwall Council, ascfeedback@cornwall.gov.uk

Workforce is presently one of the most important issues facing Cornwall’s health, care and wellbeing system. It is estimated that this workforce – including the statutory, independent, and voluntary and community sectors – will need to grow significantly to meet projected demand but already there are insufficient people to fill the number of jobs available.

In Cornwall we have a ‘super-ageing’ population, meaning that numbers in the older age range are growing faster than average, whilst we are also experiencing a net reduction in the number of younger people. This means intense competition for workforce from a comparatively small pool of working age people.

To cope with these pressures, the health and care system needs to think differently about how to expand the workforce and develop new skills to meet the pressures we face. Many care workers are on low salaries and unable to take time out of work for more training. There are extra problems for some people living in remote communities with limited transport links, making travelling to work or to learn even more difficult.

In response to these challenges in Cornwall, a ‘virtual’ health and social care academy has been developed by the county’s NHS partners, backed by the council and universities and colleges in the region. While Callywith College and Truro & Penwith College, both located in Cornwall, are partners in the project, the university partners are based in Exeter and Plymouth.

The geography of Cornwall and the remoteness of parts of the county has meant that many potential Cornish students have been put off taking further health or care qualifications because of the travel times to either Plymouth or Exeter where courses are held. By partnering with city colleges to create a virtual Truro base, which will take full advantage of technology also offering virtual online training, the academy will be accessible to all.

There were initial challenges around putting together an agreement that suited everyone, recognising the differences between the organisations involved and also allowing for other relevant organisations to join at a later date if they choose.

The scheme made a significant step forward when a ‘memorandum of understanding’ was signed by partners, including Cornwall Council, Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust and NHS Kernow.

Here it was agreed that everyone wanted to see stronger relationships, including the care provider sector and voluntary and community organisations. We recognised we all face the same workforce challenges and must co-operate to achieve a collective response. It was also agreed that the skills and talents of a combined workforce can support improved health and wellbeing. The scheme hopes to support and develop a workforce that is well trained, well regarded and well paid, recognising the value of the contribution it makes to people’s lives.

A first set of apprentices should join the academy in September and October this year. It is anticipated there will be at least 30 registered nurses (adults), 15 registered nurses (mental health) and 15 clinical associate psychologists.

At a recent health and wellbeing board meeting it was recognised that by 2030, Cornwall will have an additional 7,000 people needing care. The workforce needs to have the right attitudes, skills and values to deliver high quality care to often vulnerable members of our society and to do this, they need to be well trained, well regarded, and well remunerated.

This is not just a problem for adult social care. Phil Confue, chief executive at Cornwall Foundation Trust, highlighted that there will be 114 more vacancies in the mental health workforce alone than in 2016. This will be repeated across different health and care sectors.

Cornwall Council also works very closely with its partners under the Proud to Care initiative, a joint approach to the promotion of care roles and the recruitment of care staff across the region.

Through a joint approach, taking advantage of the academy opportunities, partnership working, and through the council’s range of opportunities for the ongoing training of social workers, I am hopeful that we will build on the talents of our existing workforce. This will help us to collectively develop the new skills that will be required to support people in their communities in the future.

Helen Charlesworth-May, strategic director, adult social care and health, Cornwall Council

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