Learning disability care risks a return to 'bleak Victorian image' as nurse numbers plummet, RCN warns

There are 2,000 fewer learning disability nurses than eight years ago

There are 2,000 fewer learning disability nurses than eight years ago, NHS figures show

Learning disability nurses are valued by service users but their numbers
are in decline.  Picture: David Gee

Learning disability care is in crisis because of a 40% decline in nurse numbers since 2010. 

The RCN believes inadequate staffing could return learning disabilities nursing to a 'Victorian' model of institutional care.

Workforce figures from NHS Digital show the number of learning disability (LD) nurses is down from 5,368 to 3,247 since 2010 – a drop of 2,121 posts.  

In addition, a recent survey by the Council of Deans of Health for Health Education England (HEE) found 46% of universities have discussed discontinuing LD nursing programmes.

Falling numbers

The findings echo the results of an investigation by Learning Disability Practice and Nursing Standard last year that suggested the number of places on LD nursing undergraduate programmes had either shrunk or remained unchanged in a two-year period.

The overall number of nursing students has fallen since last August, when the government abolished the NHS student bursary and replaced it with loans and fees.

'This bleak Victorian image is not what care should look like in the 21st century'

Professor Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN director of nursing, policy and practice

There has been a 16% fall in the number of students over the age of 25. The RCN said this is 'particularly worrying' given those with additional life experience are more likely to study LD or mental health nursing. It is these two areas where the national nursing shortage is at its most acute.

Harm to vulnerable people

RCN director of nursing, policy and practice Dame Donna Kinnair said: ‘The nursing shortage in England is harming some of the most vulnerable members of society.

‘Those with learning disabilities already face a lower life expectancy and poorer outcomes. A lack of specialist knowledge will make matters worse.’

Professor Kinnair added that without specialist nursing support, more patients could end up in institutions and isolated from family and friends.

‘This bleak Victorian image is not what care should look like in the 21st century,’ she said.

Call for urgent investment

HEE has promised extra funding to train 200 nursing associates, who will spend at least 50% of their time working in LD care and are able to start training before the end of this year. Professor Kinnair said this was ‘too little, too late’.

She added: ‘Ministers have known about the steady drop in applications for the best part of a decade and have allowed a crisis to develop in LD care.

‘We want urgent investment to ensure every member of our society receives safe and effective care.’

Preventable deaths

The charity Mencap said 38% of people with a learning disability in the UK die from a preventable cause – that figure in the general population is 9%.

‘It is worrying – more people should be getting this training not less’

Jonathan Shaw, Mencap Treat Me Well campaign learning disability steering group member

Jonathan Shaw, a learning disability steering group member for Mencap’s Treat Me Well campaign, said: ‘LD nurses are very important. If you are unwell and have something seriously wrong with you, the LD nurse can explain everything clearly. They can make things more comfortable for your family too.

‘It is worrying. More people should be getting this training not less,’ he said.

In May, health minister Stephen Barclay promised to offer £10,000 'golden hellos' to postgraduate students in 'hard-to-recruit' disciplines such as LD, mental health and district nursing.

But the RCN says a delay in the investment means the government has missed the opportunity to address the recruitment crisis this academic year.

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