Vignettes from a probation conference

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 1 August 2019

This month Mike Guilfoyle remembers a probation event at Lake Windermere

One of the more enduringly memorable events that I had the good fortune to experience during my 20 years working as a front-line probation officer, was attending an annual residential conference held in a hilltop hotel overlooking one of Cumbria's wonderful lakes - Windermere. 

The conference aimed to offer an unrivalled platform (at the time the only training opportunity for practitioners), to promote best reflective practice and policy in the unfolding landscape of probation in which the shaping voices of front-line practitioners featured prominently and appeared to matter. 

The conference offered a range of headline speakers and professional workshops and was avidly attended by colleagues from across the land (including colleagues from Northern Ireland). The following three brief vignettes will, I hope, offer the reader an insight into the rich skein of learning opportunities that  prefigured moves to a harsher organisational and political climate in which probation was to be eventually subsumed under the prison-centric managerial carapace of what became NOMS (National Offender Management Service) in 2004. Subsequently, he annual conference, which had lasted for nearly a generation, came to an abrupt end starved of funding and lacking any meaningful organisational support or backing.

At my first conference, I recall an unscheduled encounter in the hotel lobby on the way to breakfast (a morning repast heartily prepared and consumed!) with a nervous looking Home Office speaker (pre-Ministry of Justice) hurriedly fumbling over her notes for the opening session of Day One. 

Robust dialogue with the Home Office

The topic which she presented was Delivering National Standards (NS). I half-heartedly assured her that she would be respectfully listened to, but probation staff were an independently minded and critical audience and she should brace herself for a 'robust dialogue'!  

I was convinced that whilst quality supervision should be guided by practice guidelines what was being proposed seemed worryingly akin to the thin end of a very large 'top down' wedge aimed at constraining practitioners. She was, as anticipated, given a measured reception and aside from dropping her notes when asked by one questioner pointedly 'how will NS enhance the relationship between probation officers and clients?'.

Incoming: macho management culture

It was clear that her 'sales' pitch was a foretaste of what was to come and engaging with front line probation staff in a ‘consultative' fashion was to prove a communications maelstrom. Her aim of ensuring confident, authoritative, motivational and credible supervisory practice encountered the ill wind of an insidious target-driven, command and control, enforcement-led, macho-management culture which was blowing furiously in the other direction. 

At the close of the day, I noticed the speaker in a lighter mood awaiting her taxi to the train station, I quipped, 'hope that you will let the minister know what the feelings about NS are?' ‘Oh’, she muttered unconvincingly, 'I will, if he is in a listening mode!'

Can people change?

The second vignette is recalled with some residual sadness as the headline speaker, Ray Wyre, is no longer alive. Wyre’s pioneering work in the treatment of sex offenders and creating the possibilities for change, even in the most entrenched offending histories, captured the practitioner audience in the room in a way few have and left an abiding impression. 

His cheeringly optimistic tone was balanced by a realistic but abiding commitment to therapeutic change in those most 'reviled' of offenders returning to live in the community, He had previously worked as a probation officer. Some of his perspectives on working in an evidence -led way with perpetrators of sexual offending at times invited legitimate criticism. 

It was the first time that I had been in a room full of experienced probation casework practitioners grappling with some of the darker realities of sexually deviant behaviour without losing sight of the humanity of those committing such offences whilst also enshrining the voices of  'survivors' and 'victims' as of paramount professional and social concern. 

The changing winds of probation

My final vignette, strained from a host of fond conference memories, relates to hearing one of the finest advocates and uplifting academic speakers for retaining the central restorative ethos of probation - Professor Mike Nellis, address practitioners. From recollection, the day in question was one shrouded in a low-hanging fog, which obscured the sweeping views of Lake Windermere.   In a fitting way, it seemed designed to characterise the mood of the conference, perhaps slightly unsure and uncertain at the prospect of modernising trends then unfolding in penal practice. There was a sense of concerns that commercial and market- driven occupational pressures were downgrading the complex tasks that probation staff daily undertook with troubled and troublesome individuals. 

Nellis duly recognised a service, once lauded as being central to a humane justice system was fast becoming 'undervalued and invisible' to its political masters. One of the memorable aspects of his fine and informed delivery was how to express core probation values in a new way set in a different practice and historical context, a message that made such eminent and grounded sense, with his triad of ethical aims for the service pinned honourably to his estimable concluding comments, namely a reaffirmed commitment to ' community safety, restorative justice and anti-custodialism'. 

When will the spark be lit?

Later in a mellow and bibulous mood, the social life of the conference was legendary! I spoke to two of the organisers, both seasoned and much feted probation officers, who were reflecting ruefully on how to fund future conferences. 'What will replace this if it folds?' I awkwardly chirped. One colleague nodded sagely and with her trademark mischievousness opined, ‘Pravda like bulletins in every office and b*****t award ceremonies for hitting a target'.  My other colleague (now sadly deceased) mused long and hard, nursing his favoured single-malt and a poorly lit cigarette. 'A light will have gone out in probation but maybe a spark will once again be lit, and like the hotel we now are sitting it, we may be looking at a new panorama!’ RIP Brian.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

More on