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Degree apprenticeships futureproofing the biomedical science workforce

To mark National Apprenticeship Week, Course Leader Ian Davies and graduate Katie Preston reflect upon the first five years of the Healthcare Science Degree Apprenticeship programme at Staffordshire University.

Our apprenticeship journey started in 2017, almost through serendipity, with the approval of the Healthcare Science Practitioner degree apprenticeship standard coinciding with local discussions to develop a new, sustainable part-time biomedical science route to support in-service progression as part of our IBMS re-accreditation. The combination of prescribed knowledge, skills and behaviours format within the apprenticeship standard fitted well with the blend of academic study, vocational learning and competency assessment commonplace in biomedical scientist education. Similarly, the employer-focused origins of the apprenticeship standards echoed the employer needs emanating from our local discussions, highlighting the need for a programme with both the academic content and rigour of a traditional biomedical science degree, but also with an applied focus upon agility and the development of workplace skills. Additionally, the ability to access funding through the Apprenticeship Levy meant the programme did not dig into departmental budgets or employee finances, allowing an affordable route to higher education for staff unable to self-finance or reduce their working hours.


Our next step was to develop a delivery model that was pedagogically sound but also accessible to work-based learners. Using our experiences of delivering postgraduate distance learning programmes combined with lived experience of employer needs we proposed a blended approach combining asynchronous online education, study days and work-based learning, which allowed learners and employers to flex their studies around the operational demands of fluctuating workload and shift working. An early decision was to deliver the programme separately from our standard on-campus undergraduate degree which, on reflection, proved to be a pivotal choice; by bringing together learners from a wide variety of pathology departments we were not just able to tailor the content and delivery to suit their needs and build upon their experiences, but were able to develop this into a rich collaborative “connected pathology” network of academics, learners and pathology teams.

Being one of the first adopters of degree apprenticeship education for biomedical scientists was not without challenge. The compliance requirements to access government apprenticeship funding are robust and enforceable, as would be expected when accessing money from the public purse. These grew further in 2021 when degree apprenticeships came within the scope of the education regulator Ofsted, a level of continual external scrutiny seen rarely within higher education. Despite the steep learning curves and regulatory burden involved, our institutional experience grew and our practices evolved, with His Majesty’s Inspector of Education’s inspection report commenting upon the “culture of excellence” within the Healthcare Science Practitioner apprenticeship.

Katie Preston, one of the first graduates from the course and now a Biomedical Scientist at University Hospitals of North Midlands, takes up the story.

I never looked back

“I was just about to leave work to begin my biomedical science degree for the second time when I heard about the new healthcare science apprenticeship that was about to start. I managed to get an interview and as there was a vacant post for a Medical Laboratory Assistant in virology, that was made available for the apprenticeship. I was successful in being appointed into the post and onto the course. I often wondered in the early days if I had made the right decision not to return to university full-time and whether I was missing out on anything such as the university experience, but once 12 months had passed and I was settled both in the lab and on the course, I never looked back.

“As the first cohort, we felt like we were a part of something special. We were able to really connect with the lecturers and each time we visited the university we had time for discussions, getting to know one another and helping to shape the course for future years.

“We were able to really connect with the lecturers and each time we visited the university we had time for discussions”

“Alongside the excitement of the new course, we gained invaluable work experience and the essential HCPC registration that has led us all to be successful in obtaining biomedical scientist posts. I compare my experience to what could have been if I had gone back to university full-time, and I believe it is the on-the-job experience that has set us apart and allowed us all to be so successful in such a short space of time since graduating. The inclusion of the HCPC registration is also a bonus as it can be so hard with all the pressures laboratories are under for them to be undertaken in house.

“Like everyone, we were struck with the huge impact of the pandemic both in our working life and study life. The disruption to our normal practice was exciting at first, especially working in the virology department, eagerly awaiting the first COVID samples and practising new techniques. Fortunately, thanks to a great effort from our course leaders, we continued with the course as planned with little disruption and graduated pretty much on time.

“Completing the apprenticeship has given me lots of other opportunities too. I’ve been asked to contribute to multiple career and STEM blogs, and I’ve written lessons for Laboratory Science T-Levels.

I know other students have had similar experiences and we have all been asked to promote the course through our employers on multiple occasions.”

Case Study:

Leyla Sghaier

Biomedical Scientist, Scarborough Hull York Pathology Service

I’ve been interested in science and human health since school and started a biology degree, but due to the illness of a close family member I withdrew and returned home to be near and to help.

After school I had a range of jobs, including a police emergency call handler, but after having some time away to travel

I decided I wanted to follow my interests in science so applied for a job as a medical laboratory assistant in microbiology.

During my years of working in the laboratory I learnt about the role of a biomedical scientist and became confident in the technical aspects of the work.

I had thought about going back to university, but I suppose life got in the way, and so when the opportunity of being part of the first cohort of degree apprenticeship students at Staffordshire University was offered, I was overwhelmed.

During the course, I was successful in becoming a band 4 associate practitioner and then shortly after graduating I was successful in gaining my current role as a biomedical scientist in cellular pathology. This has been a big change but has also helped me develop my knowledge and skills in another discipline, advancing my practice as a biomedical scientist.

A vital strand

With eight graduates now working as biomedical scientists at the trust and a further 11 apprentices on the programme, Katie Berger, Pathology Practice Educator for the North Midlands and the Training Manager at Katie’s Trust, commented on how vital the apprenticeship has become for their workforce planning: “The accessibility of the apprenticeship programme provides opportunity for those who may not otherwise be able to access higher education, developing a sustainable workforce of diverse experiences and skills.”.

Our first cohort of apprentices graduated in 2021 with all now registered as biomedical scientists and contributing to the pathology workforce. Matt Reeve, one of five apprentices from Hull and East Yorkshire on the pioneering first cohort, agrees. Reducing his hours to undertake a degree was not an option, so the flexibility to study whilst remaining in full-time employment opened up career options that would otherwise be unavailable. Although learning throughout the pandemic brought challenges, Matt also enjoyed the excitement of being part of something new and being able to help shape the course. Alongside Matt, all his fellow Hull cohort are now working as biomedical scientists within their trust.

For Sharon Molland, now a biomedical scientist in haematology at the Black Country Pathology Service, a major benefit was being part of a cohort of colleagues from pathology labs across the country. “Although completing a degree whilst working full time is a challenge, being part of a group of learners from similar professional backgrounds meant I didn’t feel out of place returning to education; we shared collective experiences, especially during COVID, and could build a network to swap insights into our own disciplines to add context to the taught material. After working as a cytology screener since 2008, the apprenticeship enabled me to progress first to a biomedical scientist in cytology and now to have the confidence to advance my career by developing my skills and knowledge towards a specialist post in haematology,” she said.

Heart of healthcare

From our original intent to support local workforce development, the course has now grown to over 130 current apprentices and 38 graduates from 35 NHS trusts and pathology providers across England. At a time where laboratories continue to face unprecedented operational and workforce demands, degree apprenticeships provide a valuable and sustainable pipeline of biomedical scientists delivering science at the heart of healthcare.

National Apprenticeship Week runs from the 6 to 12 February, and you can follow all the activities on Twitter through the hashtag #NAW2023. More information on the IBMS support for apprenticeships can be found at  


Ian Davies is the Healthcare Science Course Leader at Staffordshire University. Katie Preston is a Biomedical Scientist at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust.

Image credit | iStock


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