Exclusive: Decline in degree places for learning disability nursing

Despite a call for more front-line staff after the Winterbourne View scandal and high demand from employers, new figures show numbers are down

The number of places on learning disability nursing undergraduate programmes have either decreased or remained unchanged at 21 out of 24 universities in England in the past two academic years, Nursing Standard can reveal.

The number of places for learning disability nursing students has increased
at just three English universities. Picture: iStock

A 2016 report found that at least 10,000 extra members of staff, including front-line health professionals and managers, would be needed to care for people with learning disabilities in the community.

One million adults and children in England have learning disabilities, and many are unable to receive the care and support they need because of problems with staffing, services and strategy

Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations former head Sir Stephen Bubb authored the 2016 report Time for Change: The Challenge Ahead. Sir Stephen also authored the 2014 report Winterbourne View: Time for Change following a 2011 BBC Panorama programme that exposed neglect and abuse of people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View hospital near Bristol.

In his 2016 report he said: 'We have failed people with learning disabilities and their families before. We have a chance to put this right.' However figures exclusively obtained by Nursing Standard from universities under freedom of information law, along with Health Education England (HEE) data, show fewer learning disability nursing student places were commissioned in the past two years.

The RCN's 2016 Connect for Change report said that in the previous decade, the number of training places for learning disability nurses had already fallen by 30%.

Not only has the number of learning disability nurses decreased drastically, but according to the RCN, there has been a 40% reduction in band 7 and 8 learning disability nurses in the same period.

These downward trends are causing concern among nursing academics.

Decline and closures

Nursing Standard found there were 601 learning disability nursing places available in 2016-17, a 6% decrease from 2014-15 when there were 639 places, according to the HEE.

The University of Nottingham closed down its learning disability nursing programme in 2016.

The University of Huddersfield decided to pause its learning disability nursing course for the 2017-18 academic, but the course will resume in 2018.


The increase in commissioned places, according to Nursing Standard's figures, at the five universities offering learning disability nursing courses in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Six universities had in total about 14 fewer places available for learning disability nursing programmes in 2016-17 than the previous year.

University of Nottingham school of health sciences head Joanne Lymn says the decision to discontinue the learning disability nursing programme was one the school took with 'great sadness'.

Professor Lymn says: 'Our commissions in this area had reduced significantly as a result of being unable to recruit the quantity of applicants with the appropriate entry tariff for the university.'

A statement from UoH says 'the maintenance of a quality experience both for students and service users was becoming more difficult'.

Both Sheffield Hallam and Northampton universities also revealed they were likely to commission fewer learning disability nursing places next academic year, with numbers falling by 20 and two places respectively.

Demand from employers high

In contrast, learning disability nursing places have increased at just three English universities, although last year, one of these institutions – De Montfort University – even managed to double its cohort from 20 to 40.


De Montfort University school of nursing head Christine Whitney-Cooper says her institution was bucking the trend, but agreed it was a gamble, given the move to a student loan system this year.

'I have support from the university to hold our nerve knowing things are changing, but we want learning disability nursing to flourish. We know posts are out there, there are trusts who desperately need to fill vacancies. There really is a need for learning disability nurses.'


From autumn this year, universities will take over responsibility for the commissioning of nursing student places from HEE, following government changes to the funding system.

A 2014 Department of Health update on plans to modernise the UK learning disability nursing workforce said HEE had increased the number of learning disabilities nurse education and training places by 4.5% for 2014-15.

'Small drop'

HEE director of nursing and deputy director of education and quality Lisa Bayliss Pratt admits that since this time there had been drop in the number of learning disability nursing commissions.

Professor Bayliss Pratt says building capacity and capability across the learning disability nursing workforce is at the heart of HEE's response to the 2015 Shape of Caring Review on nurse education and training.

'The aim is to ensure learning disability nursing is seen as a credible and rewarding career option,' she explains. 'To enable this, the workforce needs to be well-led and able to work flexibly across integrated multi professional care pathways that span organisations, and is so diverse a workforce that it can work in response to individual needs.

'Following three years of growth, we have seen a small drop this year in the number of learning disability nursing commissions,' she says. 'After education reforms, we are maintaining clinical placement capacity as set out in 2016.'

University bucks the trend 

De Montfort University has doubled its places on its learning disability nursing programme, and this year ran two cohorts of 20 each.

School of nursing head Christine Whitney-Cooper says the university filled 38 out of the 40 places, and said she was 'pleasantly surprised', given nursing degree applications had decreased nationally.

'There is still interest in learning disability nursing, but it is a challenging area to recruit to,' she says. 'We are working with partners locally and around the eastern Midlands to look at what we think the learning disability nurse role will look like, and shape our programme accordingly.'

Dr Whitney-Cooper says De Montfort is offering £1,000 scholarships for certain students who wish to take learning disability nursing courses.

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