A Comment from the Practitioners Conference – Paul Senior

‘It’s time to accept the reality of the new probation structure’

Or is it? This was the view, indeed challenge, of one of the speakers at the recent Probation Practitioner Conference held at Sheffield in conjunction with No Offence and the Hallam Centre for Community Justice. A very successful day with around 130 attendees from across the probation, community rehabilitation and community justice worlds. The debate was robust, enlightening and considered. Like any previous conference on probation it contained a mix of views, disagreements, different perspectives and challenge. It was refreshing amidst the doom and gloom which hangs over the probation world to find that probation trait for reflection, challenge and new ideas was still undimmed.

But what of the title of this blog and the challenge it contains. Whatever our perceptions of TR the argument goes it’s a done deal, we have to live with it and make the most of the new world we find ourselves in. There is no way back, no political resolution likely, so we have no choice. My own perception from the event was that this was not shared by the majority of the audience. Unsurprisingly the practitioners could balance the sheer unpalatable truths of TR and we heard many of the stories which illustrate its essential problems and how many remained in survival mode just about coping with the dislocation, bifurcation, de-professionalising, IT disaster with which we are sadly so familiar, but despite this, with a commitment to good professional practice. My view and that of the Probation Institute is we should not ignore that reality and seek to support all practitioners to maintain their professional aspirations in spite of this world and seek to challenge its tenets whilst simultaneously supporting all workers stuck in a catch 22 world where their livelihood, their calling, their aspirations remain even in such uninviting territory. And of course we saw at the conference some of those contradictions being played out.

So many at the conference held this duality in balance. Recognising they did not want to be where they were, nevertheless they remained committed to their service users and wanted to continue to deliver the quality service as best as they can. The workshops demonstrated good practices across the country and despite the tensions, practitioners still wanted to engage, develop and share their knowledge.

We had been nervous of running this event because of the dominance of the overall script about TR. but we had singled as one of our core targets that we would run an annual event for practitioners and once we agreed a date, secured a venue and workshop leaders, it was vindicated by the high numbers of attendees reaching capacity in the days leading up to the event. One of the PIs three core business imperatives is the development of a Centre of Excellence. I had wondered about the fate of the Offender Engagement Programme and the SEEDS training and was so pleased to secure Nigel Hosking as one of the keynote speakers. This practitioner led research project with its essentially bottom-up support in the field had been one of the most successful applications of research-rich approaches supporting the Risk, Needs, Responsivity agenda alongside findings from the desistance field. Nigel gave us a history, talked through his attempts to keep it alive in London but reflected on how it had struggled to maintain the momentum gained from 2010-2012. Maintaining such evidence-informed practices is key to future relevance and we will campaign for such an approach to inform all new changes.

We also saw in the workshops two examples of practitioner research in reports from two successful Graham Smith Award recipients, David Coley and Francesco Marco whose works focused respectively on reflective practice and peer mentors in TR. We will be launching the next round of these awards in the next few months and hope to get buy-in from NPS and CRCs for housing such important research. A project focusing on autistic service users and how to create a more positive working environment was another inspirational example of creative practice. At the heart of a good profession is a commitment to research and using evidence to inform practice. This appears to be alive in spite of the world of TR.

In the afternoon we saw the launch of the PI’s new Position Paper on Training and Professional Development. (See http://probation-institute.org/position-papers/ ) It is a lengthy piece of work with a number of key recommendations. It points to professional aspirations from case administrators, through PSOs, probation officers and advanced practitioners. Although it may feel an inauspicious time to focus on professional development, the challenge is to do so just at a time when it feels most challenging but for which the rewards are to give back some control over professional ambitions to the individual. The PI supports the Community Justice Learning programme for probation officers and are pleased to see some engagement from CRCs. But professional development is complex and multi-faceted and therefore investigating all avenues for development including trailblazer apprenticeships and post qualifying are part and parcel of being a profession. All workers should be encouraged to see CPD as a right and as a necessary part of updating and personal development. We are starting a dialogue about CPD in the next couple of months, join the discussion.

We know that time is increasingly precious for agency workers and they are not going to be released to attend conferences which were commonplace ten years ago. This pre dates TR though TR has no doubt made this more difficult. We have initiated professional networks on our website that you can join and consider the many issues which impact on practice. Each network has a moderator and they are highlighted on the website and can be contacted if you wish to get involved. And there are many more areas to develop. If you fancy being a moderator for a new network then get in touch, we are very responsive to offers of help and engagement this is at the core of our intentions for the future.

So to return to the opening quote. I am not happy with the TR revolution and will continue to raise concerns as appropriate. But we have thousands of workers who are making their living in the world of probation and community rehabilitation. We want to support their professional development even at a time of great challenge. I think the success of the conference shows us there is an appetite to do this. Join us in shaping the future for this profession. And put June 2017 and Sheffield in your diary for the Second Annual Probation Practitioners Conference or write to us with proposals for workshops or speakers.

Paul Senior