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Developing the Learning Disability learning pathway

There is an acute shortage of learning disability nurses in England. Traditionally a small field of nursing, demand has been increasing in recent years. “The learning disability nursing workforce is growing,” says Erica Goddard, Staff Tutor, Nursing at The Open University (OU). “They’re working in more diverse environments. You will find learning disability nurses in children’s services, in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), in the criminal justice system, in hospices, on inpatient children’s wards as well as in a diverse range of learning disabilities services.”

The current shortage has prompted investment in 2019 by Health Education England (HEE) to attract more people into this important area of nursing. Erica says the advent of a learning disability registered nursing degree apprenticeship has really helped boost the numbers of people coming into the profession – and by extension learning disability nursing.

Addressing the shortage

The OU is helping to address the shortage with apprenticeship programmes that offer a pathway into learning disability nursing. It has also been working in partnership with Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust (AWP) since September 2019, delivering apprenticeships to existing employees. Originally, The Open University nursing programme offered only two pathways – adult and mental health – but it has since expanded to include the Learning Disabilities and Children and Young People fields of practice.

One of the reasons that AWP chose the OU as its nursing apprenticeship provider was because of the flexible approach, both in terms of learning delivery and cohort sizes. A significant number of the AWP apprentices have been working in healthcare roles for a long time, but have not been in a position to take time out of work to pursue their nursing ambitions because of financial restrictions, family commitments or other reasons

Erica says many of the apprentices have expressed their delight at finally being able to fulfill their ambitions.

One Candidate said ‘I’ve wanted to become a nurse all my life but I’ve never had the opportunity or haven’t been able to do it because I’ve had children, a mortgage etc.’ They thought they’d never be able to do it, but now they can earn and learn at the same time. They feel like this is their moment – they’ve got the opportunity and are being encouraged by the Trust to go for it. It’s very positive.

Erica Goddard
Nursing Staff Tutor, The Open University

A flexible programme

The programme is spread across three ‘stages’ which can be studied as a full time or part time route.  All stages involve a mix of practice-based and theoretical work. Student nurses from all fields of practice learn and develop all of the Nursing and Midwifery Council 2018 required knowledge, skills and competencies which they apply to their own area of practice.   

The supporting distance learning model refined by the OU over many decades also opens up a career in nursing to those in higher education colds spots.

The apprenticeship has been designed specifically to meet the needs of learners and employers. There is a lot of flexibility built into the programme design, enabling learners to balance their studying with the demands of their job, family life and other commitments. Caroline Hancock, an Assistant Practitioner within Wiltshire Health and Care, is in the second year of her learning disability nursing apprenticeship and she says the flexibility has helped her.

When I first started with the OU, I was apprehensive as I had never studied at degree level before or learned remotely.

However, the flexibility of the studying is really useful. The material is there whenever I need to access it and I have found all of my tutors, academic and placement, to be approachable, flexible, understanding and keen to support in any way they can.

Caroline Hancock
Assistant Practitioner, Wiltshire Health and Care

Caroline started her career in healthcare over 25 years ago, initially working with an autistic young man as a one-to-one support worker in a local authority day centre. Since then she has performed a variety of roles, including health facilitation and occupational therapy, but she really wanted to become a learning disability nurse. “I wanted to train so that I can make a real difference to those whom we support, but also to educate others about the vital role that the learning disability nurse can play.”

Hannah Fowler, an Assistant Practitioner at Callington Road Hospital, is currently in her first year of the learning disability nurse training and education programme with the OU. She said the ability to study remotely has been great for her.

I wouldn’t be able to commit to Monday to Friday 9-5 as I’m a carer with my husband for our daughter, who has learning disabilities and autism. In doing this I will finally become a qualified nurse, something I only ever dreamed of. And I get paid – bonus!

Hannah Fowler
Assistant Practitioner, Callington Road Hospital

A growing interest in the pathway

Anthony Westacott, Learning and Development Manager at AWP, said more and more employees are interested in the learning disability pathway via the degree apprenticeship as they see their colleagues do it, enjoy the experience and progress their careers. “They want to do the same thing,” he said. The apprenticeships have widened participation in learning and is enabling the Trust to build up a strong talent pipeline. It also has had a positive knock on effect with staff retention, enhancing AWP’s reputation as an organisation that invests in skills and cares about the development and career aspirations of its workforce.

Even though the apprenticeships have only been running for a few years, Erica says they are already changing the face of nursing. “They have been absolutely fantastic for nursing,” she says.


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