Welcoming our first degree apprentices to the profession

The first cohort of ‘earn while you learn’ physios have graduated and CSP education advisor Reena Patel investigates...

future workforce
Advice and inspiration to support growth and development of the profession’s current and future workforce

Apprentices are employees who ‘earn while they learn’, they combine on-the-job training and experience with off-the-job learning. Physiotherapy degree apprenticeships enable widening participation and social mobility whilst upholding high standards of learning and development for all parts of the physiotherapy workforce. 

The CSP is supportive of all physiotherapy apprenticeships, for support workers, pre-registration, and post-graduate development. They provide an opportunity to respond to changing population/patient, service delivery, workforce and professional development needs whilst informing strategic approaches to workforce planning, development and investment. 

Coventry University and Sheffield Hallam University were part of the physiotherapy trailblazer group and were the first programmes to develop entry level degree apprenticeships. This article marks a milestone achievement as we welcome our first degree apprentices from Sheffield Hallam University into the profession. Congratulations to the apprentices, programme team, employers and all others that supported along the way.

Student voice: Susan Spink 

There are currently 8 degree apprenticeships in England and growing

‘My name is Susan Spink. Almost 30 years ago I chose a career in the care sector. I started that career as a cleaner in a care home. Over the years I had jobs in various care homes, working my way up the ladder by completing my NVQs until I eventually became a deputy manager of a care home.  

‘However, 13 years ago I suffered a breakdown. During this time I was able to reflect on the reason for my breakdown and decided to leave the private sector and pursue a career in the NHS. 

‘I secured a band 3 post with the district nurses and stayed there for four years before moving on to a post as a band 3 rehabilitation assistant with a falls service. This is where my career choice changed direction again as I enjoyed being a part of a team that was involved in the rehabilitation of patients in a community setting. It was rewarding seeing my patients progress and gain confidence.  

‘During my time with the falls service my line manager suggested I apply for the degree apprenticeship in physiotherapy. I was 50 years old at the time and never expected to be successful in my application but here I am killing it! 

‘At the tender age of 53 I am now a qualified physiotherapist. Being a mature student has not been without its challenges as learning and the way you are taught is different to my experience of education. Getting to grips with technology, having to revise and get the grey matter motivated into action took a little while. However, it also has its advantages. My children are grown up, so I have time to myself, and I am past the stage where I find going out to fulfil my social needs more interesting. 

We currently have 115 physiotherapy degree apprentices

‘I hope I am an advocate for mature students having that silent debate with themselves over whether they should or shouldn’t go for it! 

‘I will admit that it is difficult at times to find a work-study-life balance but with self-discipline, good time management and the willingness to learn it is achievable. 

My knowledge and experience in physiotherapy has magnified beyond my expectations!’

Susan’s employer perspective  

‘The degree apprenticeship course at Sheffield Hallam University has just finished its first full course and several of our employees have been successful in completing it. 

I have supported and mentored Sue Spink, a very competent band 4 physiotherapy assistant on the degree apprenticeship. ‘This course has enabled Sue to gain a high level of knowledge and understanding whilst still working.

Furthermore, this method of teaching has enabled Sue to develop her knowledge and learning by implementing aspects of it into her band 4 role and seeing it daily in clinical practice.  

‘We have worked collaboratively with neighbouring trusts to ensure that our apprenticeship students get a variety of placements, including community and acute experience, respiratory, neurology and musculoskeletal. This has enabled us to develop a well-rounded student that has had all the necessary experiences to embark on their professional physiotherapy career. 

‘Throughout the degree apprenticeship, Sue has developed her skills and we have gained a highly skilled staff member who has then been successful in gaining a band 5 physiotherapy role within our organisation. It has enabled us to support and grow our own physiotherapist, during the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic. Congratulations must go to Sue on all her hard work and to Sheffield Hallam for the course’s success.’

Claire Bougen, urgent care practitioner – physiotherapist, Integrated Urgent Care Services, City Health Care Partnership CIC 

Student voice: Holly Walton-Wallace

‘I’m Holly and I work in a private physiotherapy clinic in Hull called Flex Health. I was finishing a degree in sport rehabilitation when my now employer asked if I would be interested in the degree apprenticeship through Flex Health. I knew achieving the physiotherapy qualification would help with progression in my career, whatever route I decided to take. I have not looked back since and feel proud to have been one of the first on this journey, alongside my employers Matthew Booth and Alex Chester, who is my work-based mentor.  

‘Taking this pathway has many advantages, including being paid throughout studying, continuously applying knowledge learned in lectures to real life situations and being able to develop transferable skills in a work environment. Although it is not an easy route, you need to be organised and quickly develop time management skills with juggling placement, university, work and a social life.  

‘Putting your learning into practice immediately is the key factor that makes this course stand out for me. It may seem daunting but there is no better way to learn than in ‘real life’ and it allows you to consolidate your knowledge. A key piece of advice is to build a good rapport with your work-based mentor because you need to liaise throughout the course, especially not being in work all the time, as well as have a support network.  

‘I enjoyed the course and with a variety of placements, it has helped me focus on a pathway for a future career!’

Holly’s employer

‘Holly has been our first therapist from the clinic who has gone through the apprenticeship degree. It has been a really positive experience for us, so much so that another therapist has just started his training, too. We have been able to facilitate Holly’s learning in a much more proactive way as well as see her progress in skills, confidence and knowledge, that she is able to transfer straight to our client base. 

‘It was difficult at first to get used to the therapist being away for such large blocks of time, as we are a smaller clinic compared to the public sector. However, as long as you keep a good line of communication between the student, work-based mentor and employer, there is no reason that it cannot work. 

‘We both felt that we were supported by the university throughout the process, particularly through the uncertainty of Covid and placement allocations. Overall, I would urge employers to consider this pathway for employees.’

Matthew Booth and Alex Chester, founders of Flex Health, Hull 

I would urge employers to consider this pathway for employees. The apprentices gain more experience in soft skills as well as physiotherapy skills, which clinically makes them a much more holistic therapist.


The DA programmes in England: 

  1. Teesside Universty
  2. Sheffield Hallam University
  3. University of Salford
  4. University of Huddersfield
  5. University College Birmingham
  6. Coventry University (campus also in London)
  7. University of the West of England
  8. University of East London

University perspective: Sheffield Hallam

Planning for the first degree apprenticeship in physiotherapy started at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) in 2017 with the aim of widening access to the physiotherapy profession, while addressing workforce demand in NHS private, independent and voluntary organisations.  

With support from the CSP and other universities, a 30-month apprenticeship programme was developed and started in 2019 with six apprentices. 

The course was designed around a blended learning approach, which stood up to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The apprentices demonstrated great resilience through this difficult period. 
Collaborative, tripartite working with the apprentices, employers, work-based mentors and SHU maximised the potential for learning both academically and in the workplace. 

The course has proved to be a great success, with all six apprentices qualifying in October 2021 and moving into full-time employment across both NHS and private organisations throughout the UK. 

The course is continuing to grow annually with increased diversity and excellent feedback from practice. 

Tips for running an apprenticeship course:  

  1. Work collaboratively with local stakeholders and employers and involve them in all stages of planning and delivery
  2. Support work-based mentors in their role to maximise the integration of theory and practice 
  3. Ensure academic delivery focuses on the discrete skills of apprentices as a set of learners and makes direct links to the workplace.

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