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Exclusive: Half of learning disability nursing courses 'considering closure'


Almost half of universities with pre-registration learning disability nursing courses have discussed terminating their programmes next year due to student recruitment difficulties, a new survey has indicated.

Three quarters of universities have also so far not been able to make enough offers to applicants to fill all their spaces for courses starting in September 2018, according to the survey by the Council of Deans of Health, which included responses from 15 course providers, largely in England.

“[We] are extremely concerned about the decision of some universities to not offer a learning disability nursing programme”

Jo Lay

The revelation has left leading nurses working in the field “extremely concerned” about the potential impact on services and people with learning disabilities.

They blamed a lack of visibility in relation to the work learning disability nurses do, in combination with the removal of student bursaries in England for the recruitment problems, and called for action by national organisations, such as Health Education England and NHS England.

Over the past few weeks, the Council of Deans, which represents nursing departments across the UK, asked 29 UK universities about recruitment to learning disability courses. It carried out the work on behalf of government arms-length body Health Education England.

It received responses from 14 universities in England – out of a possible 24 – and one in Scotland.

“There are already geographical areas that are struggling to recruit to band 5 learning disability nurse posts”

Jo Lay

More than 90% of those offering undergraduate training said they had experienced some level of difficulty recruiting to courses starting in September 2018.

Meanwhile, among the five course providers offering postgraduate training, all said they had encountered recruitment problems and four said they had experienced “a lot” or a “great deal” of difficulty.

The survey revealed 73% of course providers had made fewer offers than places available for the coming year. This was despite almost three quarters of universities saying they had put more resources into promoting their learning disability nursing programmes this year – and a third saying this was significantly more.

Just over 40% of universities taking part in the survey said they expected to have to rely on clearing more than they did last year to fill spaces on their courses.

The minimum number of students needed to run a course varied across universities, from 10 at one provider, to 25 at another, according to the survey findings.

“This is beyond universities…we need to look to diversify and increase the routes to come into learning disability nursing”

Helen Laverty

A total of 46% of universities said they had held internal discussions about not being able to run their learning disability nursing course in 2018-19.

University deans commented that an overall drop in nursing applications, particularly among mature students, had contributed to recruitment problems, in combination with little awareness among the public about the field of nursing.

These latest findings come after it emerged last week that London South Bank University has launched a consultation about whether to permanently close its undergraduate and postgraduate learning disability programmes.

Meanwhile, the University of Hertfordshire has suspended student recruitment at two of its three sites offering undergraduate learning disability nursing training from September 2018.

Both said the removal of student bursaries in England in August 2017, which led to a national drop in applications, had affected student recruitment.

“We don’t need any more reports, telling us what we already know. We need to take action now”

Rebecca Chester

Jo Lay, chair of the Learning/Intellectual Disability Nursing Academic Network, said the findings from the Council of Deans were “extremely concerning”.

“Our members are extremely concerned about the decision of some universities to not offer a learning disability nursing programme, particularly the potential impact on the health outcomes for people who have a learning disability in those local populations,” she said.

“There are already geographical areas that are struggling to recruit to band 5 learning disability nurse posts because of a lack of local programmes,” she added.

Helen Laverty, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the University of Nottingham, said investment was needed to promote the profession through a national advertising campaign and new apprenticeship routes also needed to be developed.

“The recovery route has to start with apprenticeship courses, and a national advertising campaign. It is also about us as a profession standing firm and saying ‘enough is enough’,” she said.

“The move now has to come from NHS England, Public Health England and Health Education England,” she said. “They have only just started to work together to say ‘we’re about to hit this crisis’.

“We’ve known for about 10 years now that in 2021 there will be a massive population explosion of young people who have outlived their life-limiting diagnosis, who have now got complex health needs that are coming into health services that aren’t there,” added Ms Laverty.

“The Learning Disabilities Mortality Review report… highlighted the need for learning disability nurses”

Rebecca Chester

“This is beyond universities,” she said. “There are universities up and down the country doing sterling work but we need to look to diversify and increase the routes to come into learning disability nursing.” 

She noted that problems with attracting students onto programmes had been ongoing for many years, due to the workforce being less visible than other healthcare professions.

Learning disability nurse training at the University of Nottingham will cease at the end of the current academic year after the course stopped recruiting new students two years ago.

In a recent interview with Nursing Times, the chair of the UK Learning Disability Consultant Nurse Network, Rebecca Chester, also stressed the need for a national marketing campaign to attract more people into the field, in light of falling application rates.

Commenting on the Council of Deans survey results, she said: “Unfortunately, given the changes to how nursing programmes are funded, I am not surprised by the decline in student applications.

“Over 50% of learning disability nurse students are mature students and therefore can’t afford to train,” she said. “The impact of this is that courses are unviable.

Rebecca chester

Rebecca Chester

Rebecca Chester

“There is talk of a strategy to tackle the issues for 2019. We don’t need any more reports, telling us what we already know. We need to take action now to ensure that there is appropriate training available to meet workforce needs and most importantly to ensure that the health needs of people with learning disabilities are met,” she said.

Ms Chester noted that findings from a recent NHS England review of deaths of patients with learning disabilities, which showed 13% of cases involved serious problems with care such as treatment delays or abuse, had demonstrated the need for nurses working in the field.

“The Learning Disabilities Mortality Review report and many reports before it have highlighted the need for learning disability nurses. These nurses are the reasonable adjustment in supporting people with learning disabilities to have their health needs met. This is a basic human right,” she said.

Lisa Bayliss-Pratt, chief nurse at Health Education England, said: “HEE values learning disability nurse courses and is committed to securing their future and to making sure we have a future workforce that has the right skills mix to meet changing needs of people, families and carers.”

“Learning disability nurses play a vital role in supporting people’s needs and that is why, working with partners including NHS England and education providers, we are looking at the issues affecting this key workforce, including recruitment to training courses. The survey conducted by the Council of Deans is a key part of this work.”

Shen noted HEE was hosting a series of upcoming regional events “to give the nursing community and education providers a chance to tell us their views and experiences to help us build up a picture of what is happening across the country”.

“We will use the feedback provided to help shape plans for a workforce capable of delivering the new models of care designed to meet the needs of children and adults with learning disabilities and/or autism,” she added.





Readers' comments (2)

  • Why can’t you just be an Adult or Mental Health nurse and complete an add on course to your degree to bring you up to speed?

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  • I agree with the above poster that for people studying adult or mental health nursing they could be offered a course in LD to allow them to practice in both fields. I am now half way through my adult nursing course, but previously I worked in LD as a support worker and HCA. However, in my area there are limited jobs for LD nurses as most of the work is done by support workers. There is also the issue that the NHS is reducing inpatient beds.

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