Published on 29 November 2023
When NHS clinical therapist Judith Liddle began a Degree Apprenticeship to develop her leadership skills - little did she imagine the onslaught she would face professionally and personally as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
As the virus swept through the country, Judith found herself on the frontline, facing huge demands on the health and social care sector, she also contracted the virus three times in 2020, and the final bout left her with long covid and so ill she was unable to work or study for 13 months.
After recovering, the 43-year-old was then faced more adversity as she coped with her father’s death from cancer.
But with a determination to achieve her career goals and with support from the University of Sunderland, Judith continued with her Senior Leader Degree Apprenticeship, and this week steps on stage at the Stadium of Light, during the Winter Graduation Ceremonies, to collect her certificate.
There’s also more positive news, as she began a new job with Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust just before completing her course in a strategic system lead role - a role she says she’d never have contemplated before the Degree Apprenticeship.
“It’s wonderful to be graduating today and celebrate of all the hard work and what we’ve been through over the last three years,” says Judith, who now lives in County Durham.
“I chose to study at Sunderland as there was a mixture of reputation, course design, ability to learn from other industries, location and the fact that the University were beginning a new Occupational Therapy Degree Apprenticeship that was gaining great interest in the local NHS sector.”
Sunderland-born Judith, who qualified as an occupational therapist more than 20 years ago, had been leading a team of therapists within an NHS emergency department, supporting patients in their recovery and discharge, as well as preventing avoidable admissions.
Keen to develop her skills further in leadership and management, she pushed aside her fears of returning to higher education after almost two decades. The apprenticeship saw her studying one day a week, while working in her full-time role for two years.
She explained: “Beginning the course in late 2019 meant that COVID-19 and the subsequent national lockdown had a huge impact on learning, delivery of learning and an increased demand on the NHS, resulting in a significant increase in workload. Learning was initially paused.
“During this time I was seconded to manage the discharge team (for one year), working at a grade higher, in addition to maintaining my current role and service. This was in response to the shifting demands for services, rapidly changing government policy and increasing staff absence due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the health and social care sector.”
The pause in her learning while necessary, was originally viewed as having a negative impact on her learning, but during Judith’s absence the course structure and design changed and this had a positive impact on learning when she returned.
“I feel that the knowledge and experience gained on my return to the degree reinforced and cemented all of my clinical experience as an Occupational Therapist with my leadership experience and the academic knowledge gained," Judith says.
Judith’s new role focuses on the effective flow of patients between hospital and community settings, drawing on both her clinical skill set and experience coupled with knowledge and experience gained from the course.
The key highlights of her Apprenticeship programme included an induction weekend.
She says: “This was a fun weekend, with deep self-learning and reflection in addition to bonding as a group. In my opinion, this provided an excellent foundation for the cohort to build trust, grow and develop whilst embedding self-reflection and learning that is imperative to successful application of academic learning throughout the course.
“My final module, the support received during this module from my tutor and fellow students was key to the success of this module. The openness, honesty and ability to share experiences, difficulties and learning far exceeded my expectations.”
So what advice does Judith have to apprentices in their own first term of their programme?
“Remember to take your time to enjoy the experience as this enhances the learning. Be true to yourself, open and honest. Gaining academic knowledge is excellent but this course allowed for more than that: it supported self-learning and appreciating own skill set and areas for development. The learning experience was facilitated to enable learning from others, take every opportunity to shadow each other in current roles, learn from each other and develop as an individual and a team.”