Nursing studies

From care assistant to registered nurse: taking the foundation course route

Two students’ experiences of juggling a nursing course and placements with a care home role

Two students experiences of juggling a nursing course and placements with their care home role

Care workers can start working towards a career as a registered nurse by undertaking a foundation course Picture: iStock

Two care workers in Northern Ireland are about to achieve their ambition of becoming registered nurses, thanks to the support theyve received from their workplace.

Theyve both worked in care homes for years, but because of financial constraints and family commitments theyve never had the chance to go to university and do their nursing degree, says Claire Black, nurse manager at Parkmanor Oaks nursing home in Dunmurry, Belfast, which is part of the Macklin Group.

Encouraged to take on a foundation course, then nursing degree

When you see them

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Two students’ experiences of juggling a nursing course and placements with their care home role

A care worker talking to a nursing home resident and holding her hand.  Care workers can start working towards a career as a registered nurse by undertaking a foundation course
Care workers can start working towards a career as a registered nurse by undertaking
a foundation course Picture: iStock

Two care workers in Northern Ireland are about to achieve their ambition of becoming registered nurses, thanks to the support they’ve received from their workplace.

‘They’ve both worked in care homes for years, but because of financial constraints and family commitments they’ve never had the chance to go to university and do their nursing degree,’ says Claire Black, nurse manager at Parkmanor Oaks nursing home in Dunmurry, Belfast, which is part of the Macklin Group.

Encouraged to take on a foundation course, then nursing degree

‘When you see them working with the residents, they are born nurses,’ says Ms Black. ‘It’s not just a job to them, they go above and beyond.’

Spotting their potential, Ms Black encouraged Ciaran McGowan and Lynette Mayes to take part in a scheme that was offered by their employer, starting with an Open University (OU) foundation course before moving on to a three-year nursing degree. Both recently sat their final exams and hope to receive their Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) registration in November.

‘When I was asked if I’d like to do Open University, I jumped at the chance,’ says Ms Mayes. ‘Becoming a nurse was something I always wanted to do, but financially, as a single parent, I just couldn’t do it.’

She has worked for the Macklin Group since she was 16, joining Parkmanor in 2011. ‘My passion is dementia,’ says Ms Mayes, who has a diploma in the subject and regularly updates her training. ‘Good care gives people a much better quality of life. It’s a very rewarding field.’

Care assistants and nursing students Ciaran McGowan, left, and Lynette Mayes, right, with the nursing home’s nurse manager Claire Black
Ciaran McGowan, left, and Lynette Mayes, right, with the nursing home’s nurse manager Claire Black

Combining placements, study time and working hours

Under the scheme, course fees are paid by the government, while the employer sponsors the students throughout. They have an allotted amount of study time each week and are paid for their contracted hours while on placement, so they don’t lose out financially.

Another two care workers at the nursing home have also done their OU foundation course, but the collapse of the Stormont executive three years ago meant putting their move to a degree on hold as funding is not available. ‘Now the executive is back in place, once the pandemic is under control, we’re hopeful that will resume,’ says Ms Black.

‘When you have a culture of education and development, it motivates staff. There is a lot of learning, which ultimately benefits our residents’

Claire Black, nurse manager at Parkmanor Oaks nursing home, Belfast

Ms Mayes says she has especially enjoyed the opportunity to experience a variety of placements, particularly surgical. ‘I never dreamed I would be in that area,’ she says. ‘I’ve met some great surgeons, nurses and doctors along the way who have taught me so much.

‘The course has been hard at times because it’s very self-directed, but we’ve had a lot of support. It’s been a good journey, but I’ve had to be disciplined.’

Learning to stop thinking like a care assistant and be a nurse

Mr McGowan also admits the course has not been easy. ‘But you just have to focus yourself and keep going,’ he says.

Having joined the Macklin Group ten years ago as a care assistant, Mr McGowan won the RCN Northern Ireland healthcare support worker of the year award in 2017, and also won an emerging leader award from Independent Health and Care Providers.

Among the challenges for him on the programme were placements in unfamiliar settings, including neurology, learning disability, outpatients, the community and children’s nursing.

‘I’m so used to being in a nursing home and had never worked in a hospital before, so it was a strange experience for me,’ he says.

Both he and Ms Mayes did their management placements at the nursing home, with Mr McGowan’s happening during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘At the beginning, I thought it might be easier as I’d been here for so long,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t – it was difficult to stop thinking like a care assistant and be a nurse.’

Residents and managers supporting staff to progress

The home’s residents – who include some retired nurses – and their families have supported the two throughout. ‘They ask about your exams and tell you they’re saying prayers for you. Some give us good luck cards,’ says Mr McGowan.

‘It’s lovely to see families watching you grow and wanting you to do well,’ adds Ms Mayes. ‘At the start, I thought perhaps they wouldn’t have trusted me because I was a care assistant and they’ve known me for so long. But their support has been amazing.’

For Ms Black, it’s a win-win. ‘Yes, you are investing in your staff for three years, but then they’re going to become nurses and stay with you,’ she says. ‘It improves quality of care, and also attracts and retains staff because they know there are development opportunities within the home.

‘When you have a culture of education and development, it motivates staff,’ she adds. ‘There is a lot of learning, which ultimately benefits the residents. When others see how well Ciaran and Lynette have done, it makes them want to do well too. ’


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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