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Burke, Sandra and Keane, Martin (2009) A new model of progression for recovering drug users. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 30, Summer 2009 , p. 17.

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The Working Group on Drugs Rehabilitation1 recommended that factors that make it difficult for recovering drug users to access education should be identified and removed where possible. Soilse, the addiction rehabilitation service of the Health Service Executive (HSE), has been involved in identifying obstacles to further education for clients for quite some time. During this work a recurring theme emerged in relation to clients who were attending mainstream educational institutions. Because of negative experiences of the education system when they were young, many clients of Soilse do not have the necessary ‘educational capital’ to engage actively with the demands of academic study. The average school-leaving age of Soilse participants is 15.5 years; many have pronounced literacy difficulties and almost all are dependent on social welfare.2

 To address this issue, Soilse, in collaboration with NUI Maynooth, developed a Return to Learning (RTL) programme to empower and support former Soilse participants to tackle these obstacles and progress to further education. Using an integrated literacy approach, the RTL programme sought to prepare a group of 12 participants for college by simulating college conditions and providing technical, personal development, group-based learning, study and time management skills, and knowledge transfer. The pilot ran from June to September 2008 and was funded by the HSE, the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (CDVEC) and FÁS.
 
The rationale behind the RTL programme was twofold. First, and most important, it enabled participants to develop the skills and confidence to undertake, enjoy and succeed in a post leaving cert (PLC), institute of technology or university course. Second, it provided a ‘structure’ from the time participants completed Soilse’s six-month drug-free programme until their third-level course started, typically in September.
 
In Soilse’s experience, it is vital for people in early recovery to have a structure in their daily lives – something to do each day and somewhere to be. Without this, people are more likely to slip into old patterns of behaviour or social networks, with the risk of relapse. Taking up employment while waiting to start college is generally not an option as this can affect participants’ eligibility for the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA), and Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) and Higher Education Authority (HEA) grants.
 
Feedback from RTL participants was that the course met their personal and learning needs. They found the requirements around time-keeping, attendance, studying and completing assignments challenging but they gained technical skills in structuring assignments, sourcing information, using computers and becoming familiar with material they would encounter in college. They also made personal gains in becoming more reflective, self-assured, analytical and realistic about college expectations.
 
At a three-month follow-up, eight of the 12 RTL participants were enrolled in PLC courses, one was in Trinity College’s Access Programme, one was working and studying part-time, one was awaiting a FÁS course and one was unemployed. All reported that they were not using drugs.
 
This high success rate indicates how a targeted and supportive educational skills development programme can help former drug users to overcome the barriers to social integration. From Soilse’s perspective, the RTL programme provided an excellent and cost-effective use of once-off funding, enabling participants to progress into education, which is a bridgehead to career independence.
 
This pilot represents an important advance in understanding the obstacles to education for recovering drug users and in identifying how to respond effectively to these challenges. In particular, the lessons learned from this pilot can serve as an important contribution to the implementation of the recommendations of the Working Group on Drugs Rehabilitation regarding education for recovering drug users.
 
1. Working Group on Drugs Rehabilitation (2007) National Drugs Strategy 2001–2008: Rehabilitation. Dublin: Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
2. Information supplied by Soilse (www.soilse.ie).

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