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How to become a learning disability nurse

To become a learning disability nurse in the NHS, you'll need to complete a pre-registration degree programme accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

What is a Learning disability nurse?

Learning disability nurses work with people of all ages. They empower individuals with learning disabilities to enjoy greater independence and lead meaningful and healthier lives.

Learning disability nurses also promote knowledge and awareness in the wider healthcare community. 

Starting your career as Learning disability nurse

Choosing subjects at school

To get on a course that could lead to a career in nursing, useful subjects include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • English
  • Maths

Speak to your guidance teacher or careers adviser about subjects offered at your school.

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some healthcare experience by doing a work placement or volunteering. You will get training, increase your knowledge, and learn new skills. This could help you when applying to college, university, or a new job with NHSScotland. Contact your local health board to find out about the work placements or volunteering opportunities available to you.  

Education and training pathway

There are many different pathways to becoming a registered learning disability nurse. Find out the best way for you below.

Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) 

SWAP is for adult learners who have been out of education for 3 years or more.

The SWAP pathway offers a supportive route that you can take to re-enter education and pursue a career in nursing. The one-year course will help to bridge gaps in your education. 

Completing this pathway will prepare you for entry into a SWAP partnered university undergraduate nursing degree programme. Tuition fees and a bursary may be available. 

Find out more about SWAP.

Open University

The Open University offers options to support the career development of nursing support workers.

Certificate of Higher Education in Healthcare Practice

If you're a nursing support worker, the CertHE in Healthcare Practice at SCQF level 7 will help you develop your knowledge and understanding and learn the practical and professional skills to:

  • become an assistant practitioner
  • progress to an undergraduate learning disability nursing degree programme

This nationally recognised qualification includes online study and supervised practice in your workplace.

Find out more about the CertHE in Healthcare Practice with the Open University.

Undergraduate learning disability nursing degree programme

The Open University offers a 4-year part-time undergraduate learning disability nursing degree programme at SCQF level 10. You'll combine working in your existing nursing support worker or assistant practitioner role with online study. The distance learning approach includes local placements to provide hands-on experience and training.

The Scottish Government covers all tuition fees.

Find out more about Open University nursing degrees.

Higher National Certificate (HNC) Healthcare Practice 

Apply for an HNC in Healthcare Practice if you are an existing healthcare support worker or you do not have the necessary qualifications for direct entry into a university nursing course.

This pathway serves as a stepping stone towards a nursing degree.

Successful completion of the HNC programme may allow direct entry into the 2nd year of a university nursing course. It will help accelerate your progress towards becoming a registered nurse within NHSScotland.

Taking one year to complete, many colleges in Scotland provide the HNC Healthcare Practice qualification:

  • North East Scotland College
  • Glasgow Clyde College
  • Forth Valley College
  • Edinburgh College

Search for college courses on My World of Work.

Pre-registration undergraduate learning disability nursing degree 

If you have the required qualifications, you can apply for a nursing degree, regardless of age. You could be a school pupil, college student, career changer, or a nursing assistant practitioner.

This pathway involves completing a learning disability nursing degree at an NMC-accredited university. Bursaries are available to support you throughout your studies. The programme takes 3 years to complete, full-time.

When you qualify as a learning disability nurse, you can register with the NMC.

There are 2 universities in Scotland that offer undergraduate programmes in learning disability nursing, approved by the NMC:

  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University

Search for pre-registration undergraduate learning disability nursing degree programmes on My World of Work.

Return to nursing practice 

If you were previously registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the return to practice pathway is right for you. You’ll need an NMC statement of entry confirming your previous registration. 

You'll also need to meet the NMC's practice hours requirements before you start your readmission application.  

If you're unable to meet the practice hours requirement, you can complete one of the following to update your knowledge and skills: 

  • A return to practice course combines theoretical and practical application to update your nursing skills. It covers a full range of topics so that you'll be up-to-date with healthcare standards and protocols. Depending on practice hours and pace of study, it takes 14 to 26 weeks.
  • The Test of Competence will evaluate your knowledge and skills against NMC standards.

Find out more about readmission requirements.

Student learning disability nurse

Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary

The Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary (PNMSB) scheme is managed by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) on behalf of the Scottish Government. 

It includes a non-repayable bursary of £10,000 that’s not income assessed. 

You must meet the eligibility criteria: 

  • you ordinarily reside in Scotland
  • your course leads to a degree or diploma of higher education in Scotland

Other bursaries or grants may be available depending on your circumstances.

Find out more about SASS funding for nursing and midwifery students.

Get to know the role

As an NHS learning disability nurse, you'll work to improve the health and social inclusion of people in your care. Using a diverse range of skills and communication techniques, you'll work with individuals to help them express their needs.

Advocacy plays a crucial role in addressing health inequalities and ensuring access to healthcare services. As a learning disability nurse, you'll work to reduce barriers to individuals living full and independent lives. You might also help people gain the skills needed for employment. 

You may already have the right experience to start a career as a learning disability nurse. You might have cared for a relative or worked in a caregiving role. This experience will help you to support people with learning disabilities to be more independent.   

You'll build long-lasting relationships with patients and their families. It's one of the most rewarding aspects of the role.

As a learning disability nurse you are a highly skilled professional who has responsibility for the decisions you make within your role.

Your main tasks could include: 

  • advocate for people with learning disabilities
  • assess a person’s health and social care needs
  • support people who have a learning disability with communication
  • help people to learn and retain abilities, such as sustaining independence in daily life
  • support access to healthcare and other therapies
  • support development of everyday practical and personal skills
  • support people to lead a fulfilling life
  • reduce barriers to health and wellbeing opportunities
  • challenge stigma and discrimination
  • support initiatives and projects that improve outcomes for people with learning disability 
  • work with wider health or social care colleagues to develop and enhance their knowledge of learning disabilities

You’ll need these skills:

  • self-advocacy
  • relationship building
  • leadership
  • problem-solving
  • communication
  • teamworking
  • empathy
  • critical thinking

Learning disability nurses usually work in a team with other health and social care professionals, including:

  • people with learning disabilities
  • family members
  • carers
  • midwives
  • doctors
  • healthcare support workers
  • speech and language therapists
  • occupational therapists
  • social workers

As a learning disability nurse the NHS, you could work in:

  • hospitals
  • community centres
  • people’s homes
  • care homes
  • prisons

Learning disability nurses also work with colleagues and partners in the care sector, independent healthcare sector, 3rd sector and in education.

Registering with the NMC

When you become qualified, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to practise as a learning disability nurse. The NMC are the independent regulator for all registered nurses and midwives in the UK.

This video from the NMC explains what makes you a registered professional.

Learning and development

Once registered as a learning disability nurse, there are ongoing requirements for education and skills development. You’ll also have lots of opportunities to go further and learn more.

In your first year as a newly qualified nurse, you’ll get extra support and guidance through the Flying Start programme.

Career progression

In the NHS, you may choose to be a staff nurse throughout your nursing career, keeping up to date through continuing professional development. Taking extra courses and workplace learning could lead to progression through the career pathway to senior, advanced or consultant level.

When you’ve qualified as a registered learning disability nurse, there are lots of specialisms to choose from, including:

  • community nursing
  • sensory disabilities
  • autism
  • epilepsy
  • special needs education
  • profound and multiple disability nursing
  • hospice nursing
  • ambulance services
  • NHS 24
  • health visiting

Once you have gained experience as a registered learning disability nurse you could progress to:

  • specialist team lead
  • learning disability lecturer
  • clinical educator
  • specialist assessor
  • advanced practitioner

You could also combine your nursing training with social care work. There are opportunities to move into: 

  • service delivery and management
  • public health
  • voluntary or private sector organisations
  • research and education
  • prison and police services


Revalidation is a process that all nurses need to follow to maintain their registration with the NMC every 3 years.
It is an ongoing process throughout your career as a nurse and aims to:

  • promote good practice
  • maintain and strengthen public confidence in the profession

Find out more about revalidation on the NMC website.

Professional bodies

When you become a qualified children’s nurse, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to work in the NHS. You can also join the Royal College of Nursing.

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