Recovery Colleges: Learning how to get better, together.
The Oxfordshire Recovery College was established in 2015, but the legacy of educational approaches to mental health recovery, and the college model, significantly pre-date this.
Since 2000 Recovery Colleges have appeared all over Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. The UK was fairly late to the movement, with the first UK college opening in London in 2009, but since then over 30 colleges have opened their doors across the country.
Each of these colleges has a strong sense of its own identity, operating slightly differently from its counterpart’s due to the unique needs and contributions of the community it serves.
However, there are some common factors that ensure that all of these different communities receive the same values-driven, heart-led and forward-thinking service regardless of their location:
Co-production lies at the core of all Recovery Colleges.
It means that everything the college does, from designing courses to branding decisions is done in partnership with professionals, people with lived experience, and carers.
This doesn’t just mean hefty consultation, but that all of these different stakeholders have real and meaningful opportunities to shape the work that the college does.
An example of this is in the design and delivery of our courses: for each course we have a minimum of two tutors. One will be an ‘Expert by Training’, someone with a professional background in the subject area, and the other an ‘Expert by Experience’, someone with lived experience of that diagnosis or of using that tool in their own recovery.
These dynamic duos write the courses together, drawing on their collective expertise, and deliver them together as well, so that students can benefit from a rounded and authentic approach.
2) Physical base
All colleges have some sort of physical base.
For us at the Oxfordshire Recovery College, our base is in Cowley, Oxford, at the Elder Stubbs site.
From here, we can operate on a ‘hub and spoke’ model which lets us provide courses to various locations across the county. With an office and a training room in Oxford, we then hire other venues to deliver courses in places such as Banbury, Witney and Abingdon.
This lets us go where there’s demand, so if there’s enough demand to see courses running in your area, we can make that happen.
3) College principles
Recovery Colleges aren’t there to give diagnoses, we don’t take referrals, and we don’t tell people which courses to take.
As with all colleges, students choose to enrol and they pick and choose the courses that interest them or they feel would be of benefit. We believe that students are often best placed to know what will work in their own journey, and which topics and tools they have enough genuine enthusiasm for to be able to continually draw upon over a long-term period.
4) For everyone
Recovery Colleges provide an opportunity to learn alongside and, crucially, from other groups you may not usually share your experience with.
We bring together people experiencing poor mental health, their friends, family and carers, and the professionals that support them, and we create a shared learning environment where individuals can come together to explore issues and identify possible strategies.
This creates a unique opportunity to not only break down some of the barriers that may exist between these groups, but also to access really rich learning from within a supportive and diverse community.
5) Information, advice & guidance
Every student has an opportunity to meet on a 1:1 basis with a tutor to access information and guidance, and to set learning goals.
At Oxfordshire Recovery College, we call this meeting an ‘Individual Learning Plan’, and try to review it around every three months to help students keep a sense of forward motion and momentum in their learning.
6) Does not substitute treatment
We aim to work alongside other treatments and services that a person may be drawing upon, to create holistic support that recognises all aspects of that person.
We would never suggest that someone disengage from treatment they’re finding useful to attend the college instead.
7) Does not substitute mainstream colleges
We also aim to work alongside other adult education settings.
All of our courses are bespoke, and you won’t find them anywhere else (including at other Recovery Colleges). This is firstly so that we can make sure that everything really is co-produced, but it’s also to avoid duplicating courses that you can access elsewhere.
We often find that we act as a ‘stepping stone’ for people who may be interested in taking other courses or gaining qualifications but feel uncertain or under-confident in going straight to mainstream colleges.
8) Recovery focused
We make sure that recovery principles are embedded in everything we do – from the language we use, to our team culture, to the focus of our courses.
Our college values are ‘hope, opportunity, and control’, and we try to live these in all of our decisions and actions.
Whilst our college will have these things in common with other Recovery Colleges, we also work hard to be unique – being responsive to what students and tutors tell us would be helpful, and being brave enough to try new things, is something we work hard to do and pride ourselves on.
The Oxfordshire Recovery College creates a great opportunity to share experiences, learn new tools and strategies to better support ourselves and others, and to perhaps feel a little less alone.
If you’re interested in joining our community, as a student or even as a tutor, please get in touch:
What to read next
What is adolescence and why does behaviour change so much during adolescence ? How does it affect mental health and what do we know about that? What are we doing to help younger people with mental health problems? This is a write up from a short public talk for Oxfordshire Science Festival covering these questions.