Editorial: A Conversation with Paul Senior

Published 15/03/2016
Type Editorial Comment
Author(s) Paul Senior
Corresponding Authors Paul Senior, Professor of Probation Studies, Sheffield Hallam University

In the heart of the old county of Westmoreland 10 probation colleagues from all parts of Britain were arriving at a remote hotel location in what had all the elements of an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Weekend. The death knell has been sounding for probation for some years now and this group was gathering to imagine what probation might look like in 2020, if indeed it had a future! Appropriately we gathered in the library though Col. Mustard was notable by his absence.

The setting could not have been more fitting, once the home of the Gandy Family, this fine, Georgian mansion became a Country House Hotel in 1947. There is a wealth of history here and the Heaves Mansion near Kendal still retains the elegant character, which befits a true Country House. It is still owned and run by the same family after nearly 60 years. Heaves has always been noted for a friendly welcome and a sense of peace and quiet. Set in ten acres of formal gardens, woodland and parkland, the hotel has magnificent views of the Pennines, the Kent Estuary and the Lakeland Hills. The thin covering of snow on arrival somehow contributed to the atmosphere.

This group reflected many years of probation dialogue, whether as practitioners, managers, trainers, consultants, researchers or academics. But this was not a conventional conference. Though it was to take place over two days and had an overarching theme, Imagining Probation in 2020: hopes, fears and insights, there were no speakers, no set workshops, no formal agenda. The outcome was at the start unclear, open ended and possibly unreachable. Though individuals brought their own expertise and slant on this unique and sometimes precious world of probation there was no consensus of thought. In fact those invited represented very different aspects and theoretical and research preoccupations which were designed to create a real and critical debate. This was not intended to be just a talking shop amongst fellow travellers and different perspectives had been positively encouraged in the invitation to create what Bill McWilliams would have once called a ‘constructively critical culture’ (McWilliams, 1980).

This was only the second time I had attempted this kind of unscripted event the last time circa 1975 when I was training as a social worker. Attending a fairly conventional even old fashioned course in Hull with a predilection for psycho dynamic casework and the readings of Florence Hollis we had heard on the periphery (a minstrel (early social media!) in the form of Roy Bailey playing his guitar) about the anti-psychiatry movement led by R. D. Laing and David Cooper. Not on the curriculum I suggested to my fellow students we should go away to a remote location and debate these new ideas. I knew of an outward bound place in the North York Moors, remote and isolated, which seemed perfect. Everyone readily agreed. I prepared various papers, read all the works available of the key thinkers and we set off. On arrival I sought a communal place to work and suggested we start at 3pm. A football game had started outside and then as 3pm neared everyone disappeared, I discovered later, to the pub at the bottom of the lane. I sat and sulked, though about a dirty protest in keeping with my caricatured understanding of Laing’s philosophy until they all returned around midnight. The following day people slept in, went for a walk, cooked communally but steadfastly refused to engage. As we left everyone was refreshed and relaxed and pronounced what a great weekend it had been. I quietly fumed about the lost opportunity.

Chastened by this experience I have organised many conferences since but always with speakers and workshops in them. I have always yearned for those parts of such conferences where free discussion took place and the agenda could arise more dialogically. In my experience that space for reflection, contemplation and critical thinking has got squeezed over the years, though the conference experience in terms of learning has not necessarily improved. The Conversation at Kendal was designed without formal inputs to encourage just that reflection and critical thinking which can promote dialogue, exchange and deep learning.

There was a real danger that the discussion at Kendal could descend into a depressed and fatalistic conversation about the havoc unfolding under the bifurcation of probation and the growing consequences arising from the role of the private sector in shaping delivery. But stimulated by a discussion on what might constitute the ‘essence’ of probation, whatever the organisational arrangements, we were able to get into a debate not circumscribed by current practices. We interrogated the fundamental nature of probation arguing that there are functions which any civilised justice system would need fulfilled. Out of this fundamental discussion we began to create areas of mutual interest and work in small groups to shape particular ideas. What I found wonderful was how people who had worked in similar areas but had not met each other before began to revisit their own interpretation informed by mutual engagement. We were helped by five of the group having recently completed PhDs, so detailed and well researched evidence was brought to bear.

Day One ended with everyone going down the lane to a pub but this time at my instigation which treated us to some wonderful beers, a wonderful meal, the Lancashire Hotpot being particularly outstanding, and a perfect way to recharge batteries. With our average age exceeding fifty (at least!) an early night beckoned after eight hours of Socratic dialogue had ended with some relaxed social discussion and a feeling of a great first day.

So Day Two began to shape the contributions. Alliances were formed, commitments were made and ideas were scripted. Two months only to reproduce our thoughts. This issue is the outcome of our discussions (see pic below) with the welcome addition of three colleagues, Wendy Fitzgibbon, Mike Nellis and John Deering who could not make the event. This is a collective and individual account of our thoughts.

Our first task was to ask a fundamental question about probation. Is there a set of characteristics which describe the ‘essence’ of probation whatever the particular configuration at any given time? This prolonged and at times disputed debate did lead to a level of agreement. This has enabled us to produce a joint article, (Senior and Ward et al. in this issue) which is supported by all ten participants. The paper sets out those elements which reflect universal ideals in probation. We also identified the key boundary points where probation articulates against the core systems of corrections, social welfare, treatment and community. These boundary disputes illustrate how probation as a social organisation changes over time when it is placed against these boundary edges. The article helps to place a mirror against current developments and ask how far do they support or negate these core ideals. It also has the potential to provide a template to evaluate any attempt to develop a probation system.

The second contribution is this volume is literally a conversation that took place amongst four people whilst at Kendal. Discussing the importance of occupational culture at maintaining or changing the norms of an organization the discussion considered what impact the TR changes may have on pre-existing cultural commitments in probation. The original discussion was recorded at the event and with some minor editing, has maintained its exploratory style. It raises some very key issues about what ‘probation’ might mean over the next few years and the possible directions it could take. The group felt there are dangers in the changes but also there remain some more positive straws in
the wind. This focus group style is an innovative approach to debate so please engage with Lol Burke, Michael Teague, Dave Ward and Anne Worrall.

The third article by Charlotte Knight, Jake Phillips and Tim Chapman could only have come together through these conversations. All three authors have been working on aspects of emotions in probation practice but hitherto had not worked together or shared the overlap in their thinking. The opportunity to do so results in a paper of great originality. The article weaves together findings from three different studies – emotional labour in the current and future work of probation, emotional literacy in work with complex cases such as sex offenders and domestic abuse and restorative justice in Northern Ireland. Drawing on these studies the authors argue that the use of emotions is more than a technique to be employed but an important human quality endemic to working with others. They conclude that probation practice should seek to be emotionally literate because it enables people who offend to be accountable and find meaningful contexts for a desistance focused future. Such practices must be a key part of the probation offer in 2020.

In the volume there then follows six Thought Pieces. These were created during the Conversation, through fragments of conversations and ideas that were logged on a flip chart and then taken up by one or more individuals and fashioned into these polemical discussions. They are all designed to look forward to 2020 and to do so in a spirit of engaging with both the fears and the hopes which may be present. Hopefully therefore
they are grounded in the realities of present day challenges!

Firstly, Anne Worrall asks some searching questions about the Probation Institute and despite its difficult birth, asks whether it can become the place for the profession to seek an independent and effective voice in the future. She thinks so! Paul Senior then focuses on some of the governance and organisational concerns which confront the probation world as it bifurcated into different agencies. It is a challenging analysis which also focuses on the way in which such organisational changes have had a devastating impact on staff, still reeling from the impact of the TR changes. The third contribution comes from Wendy Fitzgibbon, who had been unable to join us but looking at what we had discussed created this interesting piece about a current innovative project using photos, called Photovoice, to create a vista on the Probation world. It is always gratifying to know that even midst such dislocation that new insights continue. Creativity is at the heart of the probation DNA, but Wendy sets this in the context of privatisation and asks some penetrating questions about what kind of innovation will be promoted in the future – a challenging

The fourth Thought Piece comes from another colleague, John Deering, who was unable to join us. John explores what it might feel like for practitioners in 2020 and provides an insightful analysis of some of the problems attendant upon recent TR changes. Whilst John identifies some aspects of practice which might be retained, the threats to the future are real and possibly decisive. One issue which reverberated around the Conversation was the in-out commitment to diversity and equality. The next thought piece from Anthony Goodman and Charlotte Knight focuses on the historical commitment in probation to the exploration of what used to be termed anti-discriminatory practice and asks questions about how such a commitment can be maintained and enhanced. The crucial challenge being the need to always see such a commitment as an on-going concern, you never reach the point when practice runs without a focus on equality issues. The sixth thought piece sees a creative gaze into the atmosphere in the CRCs and NPS in 2020. Days in the life of two workers highlight some of the issues which may characterise probation in a few years’ time. Jane Dominey and Lol Burke make important points arising from that dialogue. It asks questions of us all now as to whether we can settle for such a future?

Anthony Goodman worked with Jane Dominey exploring what the relationship between higher education and probation might become over the next few years. They present a persuasive manifesto for action about the nature of the relationship drawing on historic relationships between the two elements. The Manifesto concludes with a challenge to the Probation Institute to help bring such a vision to fruition and I shall, as the current PI chair, seek to promote many of the points made.

Of the final three contributions, two articles were created after the event, one drawing on recent doctoral research by Michael Teague and the other, a contribution from Mike Nellis, who was unable to join the Conversation but produced this detailed paper on techno corrections, setting out a distinctive agenda for the next few years. Michael Teague focuses on the American context for probation where offenders increasingly fund their supervision. The paper certainly offers a (somewhat depressing) view on the road that probation might go down, now that it is part privatised and, though the contexts are still quite distinctive, it is a cautionary road not to be ignored. This is particularly so given the UK’s constant flirting with American ideas and approaches.

Michael Teague also produces a final Thought Piece on the impact of neoliberal thinking on the marketisation of probation services. He argues that Probation may have survived for over a century outside the market, sustained by exceptionally dedicated and creative practitioners but the weight of neoliberal influence does not bode well for the future.

I could not have been happier with the way the event unfolded. Spending quality time with people who shared their knowledge and understanding so freely was one of the most enervating occasions I have ever experienced. Others reflected on two days well spent and the opportunity for time out, in wonderful surroundings, with challenging colleagues and now friends, was key to our successful engagement. We discovered I think, that we can imagine probation in 2020, that the cycle of social change will adapt and change the organisational arrangements and that using research and evidence remains key to finding ways forward.

I thank my fellow participants for being willing to suspend their imagination and focus on possible futures for a beleaguered but never dead, probation ideal. It was a truly great process, in a fabulous environment with stimulating and erudite colleagues. I hope the end product will excite its readers as much as the journey excited me. Thank you!

It is also time for me to sign off as co-editor of this journal since we started 14 years ago. I go, reluctantly into retirement, and will always keep an interest in the progress of this journal, created when we thought community justice might provide the interconnectedness of probation practice in the changing world of criminal justice. This is still a struggle but many of the ideals of community justice around restoration, rehabilitation, desistance and relationships remain a valid goal for probation practices in England and Wales and beyond.

Thanks to all who have helped me in this endeavour, all the Board members, peer reviewers, book editors, contributors and those that read it. Particular thanks to three wonderful publishers, Ian Buczynski, Vicky Madden and Jess Bamonte. Finally to my coeditors, the late Brian Williams, Jean Hine, Simon Feasey and Dave Ward, it’s been a journey I am glad we took and know the journal will continue to prosper.