How Acorns is breaking new ground in education, learning and development

Kerrie Sprason is Head of Talent Acquisition and Development at Acorns and has been leading an ambitious project at the charity called the Acorns Academy.

Building on ideas she had developed in previous roles – Kerrie saw an opportunity at Acorns with huge potential; to unite the charity’s different strands of learning and development under one umbrella.

It was a lofty aspiration for a charity like Acorns – and would mean implementing something more commonly seen in much larger organisations – where each role has a bespoke learning journey with a clear pathway to development.

However, after much scoping and viewing the possibilities through a wider lens, Kerrie and her team knew there were huge rewards to be reaped for the charity and its workforce.

A head and shoulders image of a lady with blonde hair wearing a yellow scarf and orange lanyard.
Kerrie Sprason, Head of Talent Acquisition and Development

Despite its size, Acorns is a complex organisation made up of three hospices, 45 charity shops and a number of departments all serving vital but very different purposes. To get the Academy concept off the ground in such a multilayered environment was a significant challenge.

Following 12 months of intense analysis, development and implementation across all areas of the charity, the Acorns Academy launched in September last year and has already made ripples across the UK hospice sector.

Kerrie shares how the concept came about and what’s next for this exciting project.

Hi Kerrie, can you tell us, what exactly is the Acorns Academy?

Essentially, the Acorns Academy brings all the learning across the charity, together in one place. It’s made up of around 110 bespoke learning pathways, ensuring all roles are clear in their mandatory learning responsibilities, enabling us to operate above the standard expected according to the regulatory and governing bodies.

There’s also a strong core and developmental element to the Academy. The core training empowers people to become effective in their role and develop to be the best they possibly can be in their day-to-day job. It does this through a blended approach such as scenario-based learning, immersive workshops and learning-transfer methods, all designed to continuously improve behaviours and impact results.

Acorns has a continuous focus on development, so that we can grow our own talent, making us more sustainable for the future. This means that the developmental aspect of Academy is crucial to us achieving the goals outlined in our organisational strategy.

Ultimately, the Academy’s purpose is to ensure the right learning is identified, designed, developed and implemented to all teams, enabling all our people to grow, learn and succeed.

Two nurses wearing scrubs undertake medical training at Acorns on a practice dummy baby.
A lady with brown hair scans items at the counter in an Acorns charity shop.

Where did the idea come from?

It’s hard to pinpoint as the initial concept has evolved over time. Beginning with a mix of successes I have had in much larger organisations such as the pub and restaurant operator, Mitchells & Butlers, Phones 4U and Holland & Barrett. Couple this with a deep analysis of Acorns’ needs, my own ambition, input from my talented team and a very supportive and enabling COO, Matt Bullock.

How much of a challenge was it to implement something like this at Acorns?

Acorns is a complex organisation with a wide variety of departments – from retail, to family and clinical services, fundraising and all the support functions – so yes it was and still is very challenging to meet the needs of such a diverse range of areas and roles.

The approach taken was massively varied across different areas depending on complexity and need. For example, our retail area was less challenging when compared to the clinical side, where extra layers of complexity, governance and CQC regulations need to be considered.

We are still in early days of the Academy with much more to implement and embed, although we are off to an incredible start, having won first place in the Lenny Training Awards 2023 for best training service.

What sort of things have you been doing to help embed the Academy across the care and retail teams at Acorns?

Some of the ways that are helping us embed the Academy is through collaboration and engagement with key stakeholders. We do have an ongoing embed plan which includes activities such as working with our marketing and communications team on the messaging, holding ‘Academy Campfires’ in hospices and shops, where people have the opportunity to talk to us about their specific learning journey or development. We’re also recruiting ‘Honorary Academy Trainers’ and subject matter experts from across the charity to support the creation and delivery of learning and much more.

Are there any others in the hospice sector doing similar things to the Academy?

I’ve had opportunities whilst at Acorns to work alongside and gain insights into other hospices and as far as I am aware we are very advanced in our learning offer within the sector. Saying that, I continue to widen my professional network and have met some extraordinary people with great ideas and practices.

Is this part of an overall trend towards organisations moving all their learning and development in-house?

Not really, we see more organisations bringing consultants and external training providers in house to support with the complexity of learning and development needs. It’s rare in smaller organisations to have this in house and the level that Acorns Academy offers.

Three Acorns nurses wearing blue scrubs undertaking first aid training with a practice dummy.

I hear there’s already been interest in the Academy from outside Acorns?

Yes, that’s right, the Academy has definitely caught people’s attention. A number of children’s hospices have reached out to us already and after some demonstrations of specific content, we are in advanced discussions over contracts for us to manage aspects of their learning through our Academy. We’ve also been approached to speak at a Charity Retail Association event as they’ve seen some of our Academy successes and snippets of the learning offer. I see exciting opportunities for Acorns to become leaders in learning within our sector and hopefully in time, the ‘go to’ place.

Are there any success stories you can share linked to the Academy?

The Academy only launched in September 2023 and we are already award winning – thanks to the Lenny Training Awards I mentioned earlier. We are very proud of this award, however success for me isn’t about that, it’s about the organisational results that come from developing our people. Whilst we often have small wins, I think it’s a bit too early to evaluate the overall success.

Some examples of early successes are that we now have three newly accredited coaches, all with internal clients and six more undertaking their Level 5 accredited coaching qualification. These qualifications will support our aim to have a coaching culture at Acorns and transfer learning into the workplace.

We’ve also been liaising with a leading global glass manufacturer, Nippon Sheet Glass Ltd (NSG) who have pledged an incredible £145,000 in levy funding that will allow us to further ‘grow our own’ nurses through our Trainee Nurse Associate Programme.

What’s next for the Academy? How do you see it developing?

There’s a huge amount of business-as-usual and developmental content being worked on so there’s definitely more to come. We’ll continue to work on the mandatory and core areas but a special focus this next year will be on the developmental learning needs of the individual, department and organisation. To help us meet these needs, we’ve just conducted an organisational-wide Training Needs Analysis (TNA) with a focus on development. Officially, phase two is about creating the volunteer Academy and then phase three is the commercial aspect, in other words – sales and generating income. As mentioned previously, phase three has presented opportunities earlier than we expected.

The next big piece of work is called Am I ready? which is all about empowering people and unlocking their role specific development activity to help them work towards the next stage in their career. We should have an internal talent pool of highly skilled people ready to go and Am I Ready? will deliver this.

There are lots of exciting things on the horizon, so watch this space!

Thanks for your time Kerrie

Kerrie can be found on LinkedIn here:

To find out more about a career at Acorns click here.