Learning disability nursing students who qualified for a bursary have admitted they may not have embarked on their studies if the funding was not available.
Their comments come as the sector grapples with a major recruitment crisis, which has seen applications to university courses dwindle and courses close – with those in England especially hard hit by the move to student loans.
The students, who were among those attending a summit on learning disability nurse education, also highlighted an urgent need to raise awareness of the profession among young people and provide work experience opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford it if the bursary wasn’t there”
All said it was getting to know and work with people with learning disabilities that had made them see learning disability nursing was the career for them.
The scrapping of the nursing bursary appears to have had a particularly devastating impact on applications to learning disability nursing courses, which tend to attract more mature students.
Ian Unitt, a second-year learning disability student at the University of Wolverhampton, who previously worked in the rail industry said he could not have embarked on nurse training without the bursary.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford it if the bursary wasn’t there,” he said at the event on Tuesday.
The need for extra financial support for students was one of the key messages to come out of the summit convened by the Learning and Intellectual Disability Nursing Academic Network (LIDNAN) and the UK Learning Disability Consultant Nurse Network (UKLDCNN).
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Roisin McLoughlin, a third-year student at Kingston University London, who also qualified for a bursary, said that even with funding, trying to make ends meet at the same time as juggling the demands of nurse training was tough.
“I was lucky enough to have a bursary but I still only get £100 from the NHS to last me a month,” she said. “I am working full-time alongside full-time placements – trying to complete all my hours – as well as doing a degree, having a dissertation and exams. It is just impossible.”
Others like Jamie Summers, who is in his first year at Kingston, said they had not been deterred by the removal of the bursary but had encountered incredulity among existing nurses that they still wanted to do the training.
“Especially when I’m on placement people are like, ‘Oh you’re the ones that are paying for your course’,” he said.
“People seems to be surprised we’re still doing nursing because we’re paying for it, but I see it more as an investment in my future,” he said. “I am doing it because I want to do it.”
“When I did do learning disability nursing, it was a shock to quite a lot of people”
The summit heard about the urgent need to implement apprenticeship routes into learning disability nursing – seen as a key way to get more people into the sector.
Mr Unitt said this was something he might have considered but highlighted concerns that new routes into the profession could gradually erode the concept of a graduate-level workforce.
“Although I can see that would be a good way for a lot of people to get into nursing, because you are earning as you go,” he noted.
He added: “I look at my cohort and maybe the majority of people might have chosen that route, but would that spell the end of the traditional degree-level route into learning disability nursing?”
When it came to getting more young people to consider learning disability nursing as a career, the students flagged up the fact awareness and understanding of the role was virtually non-existent in schools and colleges.
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Awareness was also patchy among nurses and nursing students in other fields who had little concept of the broad ranges of skills required spanning mental and physical health, children and adults.
“As a third year, we have 90 skills sign off and, of all these skills, 80% are the same as other nursing courses but people will still be like ‘You’re not a proper nurse’,” said Ms McLoughlin.
She said she was inspired to become a learning disability nurse because her sister has a mild learning disability and, as she was growing up, she had seen the difference good support – or lack of it – could make.
“At the school I went to, nursing wasn’t really something you’d do – you’d go on to do other things. So, when I did do learning disability nursing, it was a shock to quite a lot of people,” she said.
“I’m at the end of my degree now and I have learned so much. I think we need to target post-16 students,” she said. “Get in there just at the end of GCSEs while people are choosing – because people might struggle academically with A-levels but really flourish with college courses and I don’t think people understand that is a route into nursing.”
“I only found about learning disability nursing through volunteering at a learning disability setting”
Zoe Eccleshall, a first-year student at the University of Wolverhampton, agreed learning disability nursing “needs to be promoted a lot more”.
“I only found about learning disability nursing through volunteering at a learning disability setting,” she said.
Emma Robertson, a third year student at Kingston, said she initially studied psychology before embarking on her nursing degree. It was working at a summer camp for people with special needs in the US that led to a change of plan, she explained.
“I came back home from there and worked and volunteered with children and adults with learning disabilities in different settings,” she said.
“But I didn’t really come across any learning disability nurses,” she said. “I find it surprising that, even in learning disability settings, most of the staff don’t know learning disability nursing exists.
“And they are the people you’d want to recruit, because they have already got the experience and would be great learning disability nurses,” said Ms Robertson.
“People seems to be surprised we’re still doing nursing because we’re paying for it”
All said they had been struck by the passion of nurses working in the field who were often the most effective recruiters.
Before doing his nurse training, Mr Unitt worked at Mencap as a support worker and did a degree in health and social care.
“When I was working, I spoke to everybody I came into contact with – social workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists – and learning disability nurses,” he said.
“And the people who sold their job most passionately to me were the learning disability nurses, so I signed up for the course at Wolverhampton and haven’t looked back,” he said.
Ms Robertson said that, while nurses from other fields had tried to put her off joining the profession, learning disability nurses were enthusiastic advocates.
“There have been a few times where I have spoken to nurses who work in other settings and they have said, ‘why do nursing? It is so stressful at the moment’,” she said.
“But invariably, whenever you mention it to learning disability nurses, they will be really passionate and say, ‘well that’s great – have you thought about this area within in nursing?” she added.
“I find it surprising that, even in learning disability settings, most of the staff don’t know learning disability nursing exists”
Meanwhile, the students said they were convinced more people would consider learning disability nursing if they knew more about it and had the chance to meet and interact with people with learning disabilities, who were the ones who “really sell it to you”.
There have long been calls for a national advertising campaign to promote learning disability nursing as a rewarding and diverse career.
The students said high profile television programmes like 24 hours in A&E could also do more to showcase the vital work of professionals such as learning disability liaison nurses.
They also highlighted the need to reach out to people who were keen to go into nursing but tended to opt for adult nursing and mental health, because they were less familiar with the learning disability branch.
“The big key to what we do and the thing that is most under-rated is the problem solving skills,” said Mr Unitt. “If someone has a certain condition you give them a certain medication and if somebody’s got a certain injury you treat that injury in a certain way.
“With people with learning disabilities, everybody is completely and utterly different so actually to build that person’s trust, to get to know them, what they like and respond to, and to actually be able to help them is an amazing feeling,” he said.
There was also a need to showcase the sheer range of roles in learning disability nursing, he added. “You might not like the forensic placements but you might like residential or community – there is such a variety,” said Mr Unitt.
“When you look at our placement settings, you realise what a diverse branch of nursing we’re in – probably the most diverse,” he said. “There is something for everyone.”
While the vast majority of learning disability services are provided outside the NHS, the students said they were keen to work within the health service because of the support for newly-qualified nurses and opportunities for career progression.
They suggested the development of a clear career framework for learning disability nursing – one of the measures likely to be taken forward by Health Education England would provide “reassurance” for those considering coming into the sector.
The budding nurses said they were not put off by gloomy predictions about a major shortage of learning disability nurses on the horizon and said the fact there were lots of jobs available was a actually a “positive selling point”.
“The last two placements I have been on they have said ‘There are always jobs. Contact us in your third year’,” said Mr Summers.
Mr Unitt said he thought more young men would jump at the chance to do a job like his if they had the chance to experience it – despite lingering misconceptions that nursing was not a male career.
“The other day did a 14-hour shift in Blackpool,” he said. “If people followed me around for a week and saw what I did they would say, ‘that’s a great job – I’d love to do that’.”
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