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Catherine Lee-Cowan

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Associate Head of School - Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeships

I never thought nursing would be my career. My mother was a learning disability nurse, as were her sisters, and one of my cousins (it does seem to run in the family!) I literally started as a nursing assistant when I finished university (having studied Zoology/Marine Zoology) as I needed a summer job! I worked with people with learning disabilities for the first time and it was a challenge at the beginning. I worked for almost a year before leaving to visit family – but then needed another job and by that time, I was an old hand at being a nursing assistant so went back to work with people with learning disabilities again.

I worked with older people and on the Hospital Day Services unit until the Trust decided to second staff to undertake their nurse training. I was successful and completed the Joint Degree in Learning Disability Nursing and Social Work (the first iteration of the programme in the North East). I worked for a number of years as a community Learning Disability Nurse and as Lead Nurse across the community teams in the county before moving on to work as a Serious Incident Investigator in the Patient Safety Team in my Trust. Definitely a challenging time and working as Head of Patient Safety for a year gave me a whole new view into the strategic and operational issues. However, more importantly, it gave me a view of how support within teams and from leaders can have an immense effect on how well a team functions!

More poignantly, it gave me a real understanding of the impact we have on our patients and their families – and I wanted to be in a position to support student/apprentice nurses to understand that better.

Teaching and supervision

I am now Associate Head of School for the Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeships (RNDA) overseeing the programme teams managing and delivering both the local delivery and SPIRE apprenticeships. 

Previously I was the Joint Programme Leader for the Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship which aims to develop apprentices recruited from within local partnership Trusts across all specialisms (adult, learning disabilities and mental health) and enable them to gain a nursing degree. The programme can be undertaken over five years but apprentices may be able to join the course at different points depending on their previous qualifications and care experience.

I was also the module lead for the third and fourth-year module related to practice (ANA MHA LDA 201) and co-module lead for the Leadership and Management Module in the final year (ANA MHA LDA 301) and supported teaching on the various modules across the programme.

Additionally, as part of the unique structure of the apprenticeship programme, I acted as AESiP (Apprenticeship Education. Supervisor in Practice) for the apprentices on the learning disability nursing route (and provided additional support to them through the programme both in their workplace and when they're on placement).

I have been in healthcare for nearly 30 years and a registered learning disability nurse for nearly 20 years. I worked as a nursing assistant at the start of my career in healthcare and I think this provides me with a good understanding of the role the apprentices are in currently. I have always worked in learning disabilities services and was seconded to complete my nurse training by my Trust at the time. 

I have worked as a care coordinator within an integrated community learning disability service which was very multi-disciplinary, and managed by the local authority. I subsequently acted as Lead Nurse across the countywide community learning disability service, providing guidance, clinical support, and supervision to the nurses within the service. I also held a caseload of complex cases requiring support for discharge. My interests particularly included dementia in people with learning disabilities (especially Downs Syndrome).

Following this, I worked within the Trust Patient Safety team as a serious incident investigator and undertook serious incident reviews which instilled in me a real sense of how what we do as healthcare practitioners (and especially as nurses) can have a huge positive and negative impact on the outcomes for our patients. I still have a huge interest in patient safety, but my work in this field enabled me to develop a broader depth of knowledge around trauma-informed care and recovery – especially the CHIME principles.

Throughout my career, care planning – especially using collaborative working and shared decision-making – has become more pertinent, and currently, this is an important part of what I have supported the apprentices to understand.

Last updated 28 February 2024