Wednesday, 23 January 2013

In Defence of Probation

There's nothing quite like having to eat some humble pie. Having to admit that you might be wrong about something. A post I read yesterday morning has been nagging away at me ever since. 

Posted on Guerilla Policy and entitled 'The Connected Society' it serves to confound my Luddite view of twitter. The author, Laura McInerney, is an educationalist and in this one short post describes how a group of disgruntled headteachers were able to use conversations on twitter as a springboard to a campaign that now has the ear of government. She gives other examples and summarises thus:-

"Individually none of these actions is earth-shattering, but by using the internet in this way frontline workers will cumulatively better hold the government to account than in the past. The Big Society was a great soundbite and a good start for promoting volunteerist spirit. Now it is time for frontline workers to take up the mantle and use the Connected Society to actually create, implement and scrutinise in order to get better social policies."

This is highly encouraging and I know is basically the raison d'etre of the Guerilla Policy website. But would it, could it work for other groups? Nurses, social workers, police officers, probation officers? 

It strikes me that schools and hence headteachers have been given a degree of autonomy in recent years and are not subject of a vast controlling bureaucracy bearing down on them in the same way as other professions. Yes there is the dreaded National Curriculum and increasingly punitive inspection regime, but no over-arching national management structure that seeks to enforce obedience. (For instance, I was interested to see that NOMS HQ have decreed that work computers and e-mail addresses cannot be used for voting in the No 10 e-petition.) 

However, I've recently found another example of a public service profession getting organised from the frontline, and they are youth workers. I'd almost forgotten about them, wrongly assuming that the life blood had been completely squeezed out of them years ago. Even though patently a vital service, it is disgracefully not a statutory function of Local Authorities, and many services have disappeared from view during periods of increasing spending cuts. But an open letter and subsequent conference in 2009 spawned a campaign entitled 'In Defence of Youth Work'. 

What this group stands for makes very interesting reading. For 'youth work' substitute 'probation' in the following:-  

"Youth Work, in common with other educational and welfare state services, is today showing the impact of three decades of intrusive Thatcherite and New Labour management aimed at controlling workers' day-to-day practice more and more tightly. Paradoxically this has been underpinned by a 'market' ideology which has 'freed' the economy and powerful financial institutions of virtually all state controls.  The result is that Youth Work is close to being forced to abandon this distinctive commitment.  It can all too easily accept the State's terms, to side with the State's agenda.  Profound changes are taking place, which should be resisted."

"Our definition is at odds with much that passes for Youth Work today.  Successive governments in the neo-liberal era have sought to introduce the norms and values of the market into our work.  Attempts have been made to impose the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes.  A range of policies push us ever nearer to becoming little more than an agency of behavioural modification.  The top-down imposition of an integrated workforce will harm occupational specialisms like Youth Work and damage the responsiveness of services for young people."

Strong stuff indeed, with some alarming parallels with our own situation I venture to suggest, but I have no idea how successful this group has been. I do notice though that a video and book were part financed by two trade unions, Unison and Unite. Of course we have NAPO, a trade union and professional association. 

But it's not quite the same thing, being essentially traditionally organised bureaucratically and democratically through a branch structure. I've been a member throughout my career, but I know from experience how many colleagues have felt alienated and intimidated by the structure. A traditional union has difficulty being fleet of foot and NAPO is only now trying to fully embrace the opportunities afforded by new media. 

The forum pages are cranky and little-used and I suspect many would-be contributors feel too intimidated to venture into print for fear of being branded politically unsound in some way. Very sad certainly, especially in the middle of the current crisis facing us. I suspect that if we are to get a similar 'In Defence of Probation' group, it's going to emerge spontaneously via Facebook or bloody twitter, not through a union initiative. 

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