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Workforce plan: Pharmacy school says class size increases need 'consideration'

C+D asked every pharmacy school in the UK about their capacity and readiness for the sector’s workforce expansion. Find out what they had to say.

England will see a 29% increase in pharmacist training places by 2028/2029, according to the NHS long term workforce plan released last week (June 30). By 2031, the number of training places available is planned to be 4,970 – up from 3,339 places in 2022.

The workforce plan will require a rapid expansion in pharmacy training, but it does not specify precisely how this will be achieved.

C+D sent questions relating to the NHS England (NHSE) plan to all of the universities accredited by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC).

We asked the schools about their response to the plan, their current capacity and their capacity to expand training over the short term.

 

More schools coming?

 

The Pharmacy Schools Council (PhSC) – “the collective voice” of the UK’s pharmacy schools – this week (July 4) said that it “welcomes” the workforce plan and the proposed introduction of pharmacist apprenticeships “in principle”.

The PhSC said that “several universities” had indicated that they would start new MPharm courses “over the coming years”.

Read more: NHSE to ‘extend success’ of ARRS under workforce plans

But it warned that “greater funding” was needed as well as “greater capacity in all pharmacy sectors…to accommodate placements for future undergraduate students”.

“Investment in undergraduate pharmacy teaching is required to ensure the proposed increased numbers of foundation year trainees can be met,” PhSC chair and Head of School of Pharmacy and Bioengineering at Keele University Professor Katie Maddock said.

 

“Much investment and hard work”

 

Professor Katrina Bicknell, head of Reading University’s School of Pharmacy, told C+D this week (July 4) that the NHS workforce plan “will be useful” but requires “much investment and hard work”. 

“We will need a real commitment from everyone to ensure the barriers that we are already coming up against can be overcome,” she said.

She added that a “significant expansion in placement places is already needed” for the school’s current students and that schools needed “enough” designated prescribing practitioners (DPPs) for foundation year trainees so they can join the register as pharmacist prescribers in 2026. 

Read more: NHSE announces 29% increase in pharmacist training places by 2028/29

Professor Bicknell said that the school was not consulted by the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) or NHSE about the workforce plan. 

Nevertheless, she said that the school had been “working closely” with NHSE’s workforce leads to support workplace learning for students, adding that the “open and collaborative” discussions gave the school “confidence that we can continue to work towards a resilient and expert pharmacy workforce”. 

Professor Bicknell told C+D that the school had not decided whether to make more places available in years to come.

Read more: ‘A sad day for community pharmacy’: Sector reacts to NHSE workforce plan

And she said that any decision to increase class sizes at pharmacy schools “needs careful consideration”, adding that the school “would not consider lowering entry requirements” to increase admissions. 

While the school has recently upgraded its clinical teaching spaces, adding “bespoke facilities for simulation-based learning”, she said that larger classes would “increase pressures”, requiring repeat sessions to “maintain the value of small group teaching”.

Pharmacy education teaches practical and clinical skills that are “acquired best” in workshops and small groups that are “not so easily scalable”, Professor Bicknell told C+D.

Read more: Workforce plan: Pharmacist degree apprenticeship under ‘consideration’

She added that consideration was needed around how to secure enough clinical placements for pharmacy students, which would give them “valuable experiences of working alongside pharmacy teams in clinical settings”. 

Professor Bicknell said that a hypothetical increase of 29% to 50% in places – in line with the workforce plan – would require the school to increase its current teaching staff “by 4-5 lecturers”.  

Reading University has offered 150 first-year places on its MPharm course over the last three years, which will remain the same for students starting in September 2023. While the school tries to fill all 150 places, “some students…change their minds at the last minute” and this year’s first-year cohort was 137 students, Professor Bicknell told C+D.

She said that the school “normally” has between 120-150 graduates in any given year, with 154 students graduating this year.

 

“Delighted”

 

Professor David Maguire, vice-chancellor at the University of East Anglia (UEA), told C+D this week (July 4) that the university was “delighted” by the workforce plan.

He said that its graduate entry medical programme will “significantly expand [its] medical training capacity”. This would aid “staffing shortfalls in East Anglia” by getting students into clinical practice “from the outset”, he added.

A UEA spokesperson said that its pharmacy school has 100 available places, all of which are filled. But it remains unclear whether this too is set to see an expansion.

Read more: What does the NHS workforce plan really mean for pharmacy staffing issues?

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Kingston University’s pharmacy school said that they “welcome the ambitions for pharmacist education” and would “continue to work collaboratively” to support the plan.

The University of Bradford referred C+D to the PSC statement, while the University of Portsmouth chose to process C+D’s questions as a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Other pharmacy schools in England had not responded to C+D at the time of publication.

 

Workforce plan

 

The workforce plan was met with mixed reactions among leaders in the community pharmacy sector. While the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England “welcomed” the plan, CEO of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) Dr Leyla Hannbeck said that it “will only deepen” the workforce crisis. 

As well as the increase in pharmacist training places, the workforce plan set out an ambition to “extend the success” of NHSE’s additional roles reimbursement scheme (ARRS) that hires pharmacists and other staff into GP practices. The ARRS is deeply unpopular with pharmacy contractor representatives such as Community Pharmacy England (CPE).

Read more: Sticking the boot in: Will mass closures ramp up pharmacy’s workforce crisis?

The workforce plan also revealed that NHS decision-makers are giving “consideration…to the potential of a pharmacist degree apprenticeship”. Plans to introduce the five-year apprenticeship have stalled several times since they were first proposed in 2019.

NHSE also said that it is looking at introducing a shortened medical degree programme for pharmacists as part of the plans.

 

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