Education as a means to recovery: Are recovery colleges a dangerous idea?

The debate on public services in the UK has been intense over the last few years, particularly in Wales. It’s the first time since the establishment of devolved government we’ve seen governments of different colours at either end of the M4. Add a UK Government coalition, a Scottish independence referendum and the aftermath of a global economic crisis into the mix, and we’ve witnessed a debate that’s produced lots of heat but not too much light.

Whether you’re ideologically tied to Cameron’s ‘Big Society™’ and localism, or the Jonesite mantra of ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’, one buzzword both governments love to use is ‘collaboration’. What a dangerous idea it would be then, for the two big beasts of public services – education and health – to collaborate.

Diverging policy and spending decisions on health and social care in England and Wales mean we are now seeing new models of care emerging either side of Offa’s Dyke – albeit perhaps not with the same divergence in results that some have suggested! One interesting development in England in recent years has been the establishment of Recovery Colleges.

Recovery Colleges take all manner of forms, and there are various models owing to the way English trusts commission their health services, but the over-arching mantra is that they guide those with mental health problems on the path to recovery through education. The colleges bring together two sets of expertise – professional and experience – in a college environment with the same systems as other traditional educational establishments.

They deliver comprehensive, often peer-led education and training programmes, to make students (not patients!) experts in their own self care. This allows the students to manage their own lives, develop stronger social relationships, a greater sense of purpose and many of the skills they need for living and working.

All the courses provided are designed to contribute towards wellbeing and recovery. People who share experience of mental health or physical health challenges teach on the courses with the intention of inspiring hope and embodying principles of recovery.

Wales already has the highest rate of anti-depressant prescriptions for all the UK nations, and mental health problems are already one of the great public health challenges of our generation. So, to my dangerous proposal:

  • A small amount of health infrastructure funding is spent on establishing two Recovery College pilots in Wales (one north, one south)
  • 50% of the facility is used solely for Recovery purposes; following the model adopted in many parts of England whereby students are taught to manage their own self care
  • The remaining 50% is used as a facility for the rest of the community to attend adult education courses. Recognising the enormous health benefits of adult learning – this would initially funded by the health infrastructure funding, with course funding and fees allowing this arm of the facility to become self-sufficient, and raising further funds to help the Recovery College financially. This part of the facility would offer students who are further along their recovery journey the opportunity to continue in education, both enhancing their recovery and their employability and skills

If the pilots are successful, Local Health Boards could build on this success and roll out Recovery Colleges across Wales operating on similar models.

Under the dramatic budgetary constraints we are likely to see in the coming political cycle, we must stop using ‘collaboration’ as a buzzword, and put it into meaningful action. Public services really can no longer operate in silos, they simply must come together to offer the Welsh public one united public service. Could the combination of education and health through this Recovery College model be the first dangerous step?