Exclusive: New learning disability nursing courses planned

Nursing Times understands that the University of Winchester, the Open University, the University of Bedfordshire and the University of Nottingham are among those who are relaunching or in the process of creating new learning disability nursing degrees or apprenticeship schemes.

 “If a student is able to look after somebody with a learning disability, they can essentially look after anybody”

Sheila Counihan

In addition, the University of Hertfordshire has introduced grants for its learning disability nursing courses, to help encourage more students into the field.

The news comes as learning disability nursing celebrates its 100th anniversary this year but Health Education England has warned of a 30-35% shortfall in learning disability nurses by 2020. The specialty is the focus of a series of articles in Nursing Times this month.

“Time and again employers have asked us if we’d be doing a learning disability nursing programme,” said Sheila Counihan, a nursing lecturer at the Open University (OU).

After holding a series of employer engagement events in 2017-18 and hearing that learning disability nursing courses were something of demand, Ms Counihan said she was given the task of identifying whether offering a programme was feasible for the OU.

She told Nursing Times there had been an “overwhelmingly positive” response from employers, HEE and others around the country, who seemed interested in the possibility of a long-distance learning disability nursing course.

At present, the OU is now in the process of launching a distance learning pre-registration learning disabilities nursing degree programme and a registered nurse learning disability apprenticeship, which will both start up in 2020.

“Every nurse should have experience with children, adults, people with mental health needs and learning disabilities”

Jo Welch

According to the university, the fee-paying pre-registration learning disability programme will be the first in the UK to be delivered via distance learning, and the same applies for the apprenticeship scheme too.

Ms Counihan, who started working in the sector as a qualified adult and mental health nurse over 40 years ago, has always had a learning disability focus throughout her career.

When asked why she thought it was important to offer learning disability nursing programmes, she said: “From my point of view, if you can communicate with people with cognitive impairments such as people with learning disabilities, you can communicate with anybody.

“Learning disability nursing is the cornerstone of nursing practice and on that we can build anything,” she said. “If a student is able to look after somebody with a learning disability, they can essentially look after anybody, because it is that much more complex.”

The University of Winchester will also be relaunching a nursing degree programme this autumn, which is set to include a new learning disability honours degree course.

The university highlighted that its launch came at a time when the specialty was in decline, with repeated warnings in recent years of fewer nurses being trained and courses closing.

Jo Welch, programme lead for learning disability nursing at the university, said that, following the new programme launch, Winchester would become the only provider of learning disability nursing between Bristol and Kingston in London, and Northampton in the Midlands.

Ms Welsh noted that no other major universities in the South were currently providing this type of course.

“Learning disability nursing has got huge gaps across the workforce and our partners for practical in the area are very keen to have some good practitioners – so that’s why the university has come on board to help to that,” Ms Welch told Nursing Times.

The new course at Winchester will start in September this year, pending accreditation both internally, and from the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Ms Welch said that the education provider was currently “pulling together the programme” and had started interviewing potential students.

For those who decide to embark on a learning disability career pathway at Winchester, they will benefit from working with a “specifically employed” learning disability nurse at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, according to Ms Welch.

Students will spend time with the nurse and work side-by-side with them, noted Ms Welch.

“Learning disability nurses are just the same as ordinary nurses and we all study the same skill sets but we have different flavours”

Jo Welch


The programme lead also told Nursing Times that she felt learning disability nursing should be part of the nursing programme at every university.

“Because there’s a parity of equity for people in terms of health needs and every nurse should have experience with children, adults, people with mental health needs and learning disabilities,” said Ms Welch.

“Learning disability nurses are just the same as ordinary nurses and we all study the same skill sets, the same education, but we have different flavours within that as well,” she added.

Ms Welch has only recently joined Winchester, having previously worked at the University of Hertfordshire, which is now offering future learning disability nursing students a grant.

As part of the University of Hertfordshire’s Trust Health Scholarship, students are being offered £3,000 per year across the three-year programme.

Jackie Kelly, dean of the school of health and social work at Hertfordshire, said: “With the NHS in England predicted to have up to a 35% shortfall in learning disability nurses in 2020, we have introduced grants for our Learning Disability Nursing courses to encourage more students to train in this important field of nursing.” 

Also among those planning to launch a new programme in the near future is the University of Bedfordshire.

Dr Sue Higham, principle lecturer in pre-registration nursing told Nursing Times that it was currently seeking approval to run a degree apprenticeship for learning disability nursing and envisaged that the first intake would be in February 2020.

After attending HEE’s regional summit for the sector last year, Dr Higham explained how she became aware of the “real crisis” in learning disability nursing numbers.

“I was also aware that lots of education providers were considering the viability of their traditional three-year routes, because of poor recruitment. I was very much aware of the diminished recruitment of the three-year course and yet an increasing demand for learning disability nurses,” she said.

The university was already in the process of approving new courses, with 19-month apprenticeships planned in other fields. Therefore, Dr Higham said she saw it as an opportunity to incorporate learning disability nursing into an apprenticeship route.

She said that the university was currently working with its regional service provider partners “to work out the finer details” of the programme.

In addition, the University of Nottingham has confirmed to Nursing Times that it will be offering a learning disability nursing postgraduate course from January 2020, which it described as ideal for those that already hold a degree and “are looking to develop a career in nursing”.