Making progress: from healthcare assistant to qualified mental health nurse

A charity providing specialist mental healthcare has introduced a programme to help HCAs further their careers

St Andrew’s Healthcare’s ASPIRE programme supports healthcare assistants in qualifying as mental health nurses

Career progression
Picture: iStock

Much has been written about the growing shortage of mental health nurses in this country in recent years and, while there are plans to increase the numbers of students specialising in mental health, it will take years to make a difference.

Meanwhile, many healthcare assistants (HCAs) would like to progress and become qualified mental health nurses, but often find the route to achieving this difficult. For example, if they left school some years ago, they may now have responsibilities such as children or a mortgage so the fall in income that would come with attending university full-time is prohibitive.

Key information

  • Healthcare assistants can study for a mental health nursing degree
  • Students are supported financially and pastorally throughout the process
  • On graduation, students come back to a staff nursing role at St Andrew’s

In addition, they may not have the required A levels to enter university through the traditional application route.

But staff at St Andrew’s Healthcare have taken matters into their own hands and set up a programme to supply a consistent number of qualified mental health nurses each year, as well as providing an otherwise unthinkable career path for HCAs.

Since 2016, St Andrew’s, in partnership with the University of Northampton, has run the ASPIRE programme, which enables 20 HCAs a year to gain a nursing degree. During their study, students each receive an annual salary of £15,000, without having to leave the charity.

HCAs without a first degree in a health-related subject can start on this route by completing a level 4 certificate in mental health, equivalent to the first year of a mental health nursing degree. They then complete a special admission process in the form of an accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) module, which allows them to enter the second year of the University of Northampton’s mental health nursing degree. This means students complete their nursing degree in two years. Once they’ve completed their course, they return to St Andrew’s as a staff nurse.


Currently, there are 44 students in the second and third years of their mental health nursing degree, while another 12 began their second year in February, according to St Andrew’s ASPIRE programme facilitator Emma Swain.

Emma Swain

Ms Swain adds that 36 ASPIRE students have so far returned to the charity as qualified nurses.

ASPIRE is becoming increasingly popular since it started in 2018. ‘We opened applications in August and have had almost 70 HCAs and healthcare staff apply,’ says Ms Swain. ‘We only have 20 places we can fund per year so there are far more people that want to come onto the programme than are able to.’

The application for the ASPIRE programme is necessarily tough. For example, joint interviews with St Andrew’s and the University of Northampton are conducted, to ensure candidates have what the university and St Andrew’s are looking for in potential applicants.

‘The standard is high; people work hard to attain a place,’ adds Ms Swain.


Through the ASPIRE programme, students stay in close contact with St Andrew’s and undertake some of their placements, including the elective final placement in the third year, with the charity. This means there is a seamless transition from student to registered nurse and it also promotes the positive relationship between patients and team members.

Students can also access advice and support. For example, there is a socialisation day at the campus, which gives them the opportunity to tour the facilities and find out more about university life.

‘While they are in university, we try and ensure they are kept connected with the charity and each student has three one-to-one sessions each year with myself to talk about their development, as well as any issues and career development when they return,’ Ms Swain adds. ‘This helps the students stay connected with changes in the charity and is an opportunity to network with peers in different cohorts and share their learning.’

Financial difference

One of the biggest advantages of the ASPIRE programme is the financial support.

Ged Rogers

Part of this is being able to complete the level 4 certificate at St Andrew’s, which means they don’t have to pay the £9,000 university first-year tuition fees. ‘It does make a big difference,’ says St Andrew’s clinical education manager Ged Rogers. ‘Students can see £18,000 as something they can get on with, but £27,000 is a bit different.

‘The ability is out there; you just need to give people the chance with an educational framework and support’

Ged Rogers, clinical education manager at St Andrew’s

'The student journey at university is quite short; they have four placements in those two years at university, and then they come out as a staff nurse.

‘Many of our students are more mature, they have families and mortgages, so it takes a little bit of financial pressure off them while they are studying.

‘This also helps them to focus on their studies as they don’t have to take as many bank or agency shifts as other students may do. They can dedicate themselves to the academic journey while they are there.’

All this means that students have the motivation and support they need to complete the course and so far no one has dropped out of the ASPIRE programme.

Giving talent a chance

ASPIRE also shows the talent that HCAs can have; Mr Rogers notes that many students have attained first-class degrees.

‘For people who don’t have educational attainment to begin with to go through this process and end up with a first-class degree is outstanding,’ he says.

‘It makes us incredibly proud, but also provides evidence that the ability is out there; you just need to give people the chance with an educational framework and support.

‘They may have left school thinking that education wasn’t for them and gone into the care workforce, and we have provided a journey that, if they have the right values and determination to be a nurse, they can.’

Phil Labrum’s story

Phil Labrum joined St Andrew’s in 2006 as a healthcare assistant. He progressed to become an assistant practitioner, but wanted to become a fully qualified mental health nurse.

So he began the level 4 certificate of higher education. ‘Before that, it was about 20 years since I was in school and I had no real academic ability whatsoever,’ he notes. 

Phil Labrum

Once Mr Labrum had attained the certificate, he applied to the ASPIRE programme and, after a successful interview, gained a spot on the programme.

‘Being accepted into the ASPIRE programme and going through the interview process gives you a bit of self-belief that they have seen something in you and are prepared to put the time and investment into you to progress and develop,’ he says.

Mr Labrum’s consistently high grades on the course allowed him to leave university two years later with a first-class degree.

But he admits he couldn’t have done it without ASPIRE. ‘The financial support is a bonus; being a mature student and having commitments, there was no way I could have taken any other route to university, let alone have the confidence to do it,’ he says.

He is now back at St Andrew’s as a staff nurse. ‘Working in St Andrew’s as long as I have makes it easier to come back and focus on being a nurse, as you’re not coming in blind.

'There aren’t rules to learn and that sort of thing so you can focus on every aspect of your nursing role when you come back to the ward and build relationships with patients,’ he says.


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