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Growing the learning disability nursing workforce

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Learning disability nursing is one of four fields of nursing practice in the UK. It’s an area for which there is a short supply and increasing demand for registered practitioners. As a result, more individuals are entering this rewarding profession. “The learning disability nursing workforce is growing,” says Erica Goddard, Staff Tutor, Nursing at The Open University (OU).

The role of a learning disability nurse is to help those living with learning disabilities lead a fulfilling life, increasing or maintaining their health and independence, as well as working with their families and carers. Learning disability nurses work with people across all ages, in settings ranging from the community to residential, educational, and primary care settings.

It’s a fulfilling career for many who choose to work in this area. Caroline Hancock, an Assistant Practitioner within Wiltshire Health and Care, is in the second year of her learning disability nursing apprenticeship with The Open University. She says, “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.”

The OU has been delivering qualifying nursing programmes since 2002, and in 2019 extended its offer to include the field of learning disability nursing through the BA (Honours) Nursing (Learning Disabilities) degree and Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship routes.

Delivered in partnership with healthcare employers, learners on the OU’s nursing programmes are supported to complete practice-based learning in their work setting. Theory learning is delivered through tutor-supported online distance learning, enabling learners the flexibility to fit this study around their work and home commitments.

Caroline comments, “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.”

This employer-supported route to become a learning disability Registered Nurse has dual benefits for the employing organisation and those they support.  For employers, training their own nurses can help fill recruitment gaps, while helping to retain their existing support staff by offering progression opportunities.  Anthony Westacott, Learning and Development Manager at Avon and Wiltshire Partnership NHS Trust, said more employees become interested as they see their colleagues do it. “They want to do the same thing,” he said. 

For individuals, the programme provides a flexible route with the opportunity to develop their career in circumstances which ordinarily might not have been possible. This was true for Hannah Fowler, Assistant Practitioner at Callington Road Hospital, who is in her first year of the OU’s learning disability programme. She said, “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!”

Erica agrees that the flexibility appears to many learners who embark on the programme. “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,” says Erica.

To find out more about nursing at The Open University, read about our BA (Honours) Nursing (Learning Disabilities) degree and Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship.

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