My job

Morrissey and why I became a learning disability nurse

David Harling was inspired by The Smiths to make something of his life. He chose a career in social care and nursing and he now shapes and leads national policy on learning disabilities.

What is your job?

I am the lead for learning disability based in the nursing directorate in NHS Improvement, the new national body responsible for providing support to NHS trusts. I offer expert advice and strategic leadership to ensure we can support providers to deliver compassionate, high quality and safe learning disability services to patients.

Why did you become a learning disability nurse?

After leaving school, I started a course in social care and one of my placements was at a hostel for people with learning disabilities moving out of a local long-stay hospital. The manager of the hostel, Tony Railton, was a learning disability nurse and he was a fantastic ambassador for the profession. He is the reason I trained as a learning disability nurse. At the time, he was pioneering normalisation and actively promoted inclusion.

What might you have done otherwise?

I grew up in a Yorkshire mining town and the expectation after leaving school was to take a job in the local coal mine. Thankfully, two things happened: the mine closed six weeks before I left school and I discovered The Smiths. It was Morrissey’s wise words which led me to believe I could do something else with my life. I followed my interest in care work and enrolled on a social care course. 

Where have you worked previously?

I have worked in various roles within the NHS ranging from a staff nurse on an inpatient service, community nurse, clinical nurse specialist, strategic health authority regional strategic lead, nurse consultant and as one of the leads within the NHS England Transforming Care programme. 

What do you enjoy most about it?

Working with like-minded people who are passionate about empowering people with learning disabilities. I enjoy working with colleagues and families to take forward change that will make a real difference in people’s lives. I also enjoy helping to shape and influence national policy. 

What is your greatest challenge?

Ensuring different agencies work together effectively to remove the barriers which prevent people with learning disabilities from having a good life.

What would you change if you could?

Despite recent advances, funding between health and social care still gets in the way of people being able to get on with their life. 

What qualities do you think a good learning disability nurse should possess?

Fire in their belly. They must be able to understand and recognise injustice, always be ready to assume the role of advocate and fundamentally know what drives them. They should never be afraid to admit their own limitations and they should be kind. A gentleman I used to support said to me that ‘the best staff are those who smile and who listen to me’.

What inspires you?

Seeing real change in people’s lives. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of leading the reviews to follow up the people who had lived at Winterbourne View. Meeting those people and their families, being invited into their lives and seeing how they had coped in such traumatic circumstances and how far they had come was truly inspirational. 

Outside work what do you enjoy doing?

Spending time with my wife and children. I love visiting the wilds of Scotland and I enjoy song writing, sculpture and walking our three cocker spaniels.

What achievement are you proudest of?

Professionally, I am most proud of being awarded an RCN Learning Disability Nursing Award for a bereavement support service I developed. Personally, I am proud to be a parent and also having written a song that made it into the UK top 10  in the 1990s [Not So Manic Now by Dubstar]. 

What advice would give a newly qualified learning disability nurse?

Never underestimate the value and importance of the difference your input will make to people’s lives. Never be afraid to be the one voice that challenges the status quo and never lose sight of why you wanted to become a learning disability nurse. 


David Harling is lead for learning disability, NHS Improvement

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