Grace Under Pressure
Rather than offering a polemical post, here are a few brief jottings that hopefully will engage the wider interest of probation colleagues and other readers who may not be so familiar with this much lauded lecture series on the changing shape and direction of the Probation Service held in memory of Bill McWilliams. Having just attended the above lecture I aim to share with readers of Jims Blog some edited highlights!
It was a particular delight given the tumultuous events over the last year which have seen the fractious fragmentation of a once unified and public Probation Service, to be able to attend The Eighteenth Annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture - Grace under Pressure :The Role of Courage in the Future of Probation Work which was thoughtfully delivered by Anne Worrall (Professor Emerita of Criminology Keele University) and which was held at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge earlier this week on Tuesday 23rd June. The format of this years lecture was enlivened by the inclusion of practitioner/academic interlocutors in the second half of the afternoon in the shape of Morgan O'Flynn (Probation Officer) and LoL Burke (Editor Probation Journal) and proceedings were impeccably facilitated by Professor Mike Nellis.
It was perhaps understandable, given some of the toxic fallout occasioned by threats of mass redundancies, real risks of de-professionalization, technological mishaps and the oft-cited associated farrago of morale sapping foreseeable organisational difficulties which pepper many of the contributions to this Blog from colleagues now working in the NPS/CRC divide as a result of TR, that the lecture started with a coy request that attendees should 'suspend justifiable cynicism' when listening!
My immediate impulse was no 'tell it like it is', but with wry historical references to earlier premature announcements of the 'death of Probation' (ie SNOP 1984), the media stereotypes of probation presented in the TV Series Hard Cases (1988/89) and the illusive notion of a 'golden age nostalgia' shaped by unfettered professional and organisational autonomy faced critical scholarly scrutiny, but were balanced by snippets from the burgeoning ethnographic literature (including Anne Worrall's co-authored text 'Doing Probation Work - reviewed in the Probation Journal 2014) on how front line practitioners endeavour to 'make sense and order' of endless systemic change, ossified managerialism, privatisation and rancorous political interference.
Rather a bolder narrative, based on extensive fieldwork and research, offered an account of workers resilience, refashioned occupational identities,optimistic practice and working courageously against the flow of centrally imposed risk-saturated diktat was advanced. (recall these insights are based on recent fieldwork in a fast changing work environment).
It was instructive to note that the newly appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove was making his first major speech on the same day, although I doubt that even the most cynical would suggest that this was as a spoiler! The adage that framed the title of the lecture was taken from writer Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage 'as grace under pressure (or fire)' and Anne Worrall continually drew on this notion of 'civil courage' as part of the working credo of probation workers seeking to find meaningful spaces in which to undertake 'edgework', that is working at the boundaries of practice to ensure effective engagement with clients in an 'emotionally literate' way in the chaotic landscape of contemporary probation. The focus remained very much at the front line, although the scattering of now 'ungagged' former Chief Officers in the audience did not elicit much in the Q&A session by way of revelatory 'grace under pressure' moments in the lead up to TR!
There was much mirth at the mention from one practitioner at the distribution in one CRC of 'BIONIC' badges (believe it or not I care!) as part of what appeared a misguided and facile organisational rebranding exercise, although there were some considered contributions about the scope for 'innovative' practice mainly drawn from CRC colleagues. This 'search for excellence' is of course partly offset by the problematic cash/target nexus enshrined in many of the CRC contracts! (contained in sobering outline in a recent NAO interim report on TR). The vexed and much debated hot topic of the role of the Probation Institute and in particular how its 'code of ethics' could be better integrated into the practice arena, informed the latter part of the lecture and my reference to the cautionary demise of the College of Social Work in the Q&A slot, whilst noted, did not seem to presently unnerve many of its proponents in the audience.
I was struck by Anne Worrall's references to the Stand Up for Social Work Campaign (re launched by Community Care 2015) whose central messages of Taking pride in the great work that you do and talking about it to inspire others, Being honest about the challenges you face, Having the support you need to protect vulnerable people. Clearly demands the need for strong collective voices, making the right noises, shaping as well as responding to the political agenda, taking the public with you, and the need for strong collective voices (user voices did not merit much attention!) and alliances to create public awareness and debate (in/out of Parliament?)
The imminent demise of the College of Social Work and governmental threats to jail Social Workers who fail to act on allegations of abuse suggest that these voices certainly need to hold fast to 'civil courage'!! There were nodding acknowledgement to what was denoted as the 'great unspoken' in terms of the 'feminisation of probation work' an unbalanced gendered workforce, the choking off of entrants from more diverse backgrounds in the labyrinthine qualifying regime, and the current gender split in CRC/NPS.
The centrality of the professional relationships, the demonstrable benefits of partnership working (IOM's) core values as encapsulated in the Probation Institute, looking outward towards workable organisational models of supervision in Europe, as against some of the macho-correctional cross-overs from the US, were also canvassed in the broad sweep of the lecture with the ever recurrent theme of civil courage undaunted by organisational changes but evincing a bold embrace of proven and valued driven evidence led practice, left the audience with many ponderables to take away.
The full text of Anne Worrall's lecture will appear later in the year (Howard League Journal?) and the enduring worth and success of the Bill McWilliams Lecture (now surviving without former financial corporate support from the PCA/PBA) and whose continuing viability will it seems rely on the wider support of all those with an indelible commitment to the best of what probation has to offer. I later had the bibulous pleasure of informally meeting up with some of Bill McWilliams family in one of the popular hostelries overlooking the River Cam before catching the train to London with my estimable colleague Chris H. As a fitting tribute to Bill McWilliams legacy to probation, for those new to his life and work, I append this excerpt from the invitation to the lecture:-
Bill McWilliams, who died in 1997, had a prestigious career as a probation practitioner, researcher and writer. His quartet of articles on the probation service’s development up to the point at which the “punishment in the community” debate began, is now widely regarded as its definitive history of ideas. He was a staunch advocate of the need for rigorous evaluation of probation practice – but an equally staunch critic of the excesses of the management ideal. He had an independence of mind – irritating to more timid souls – that won him friends across the spectrum of political opinion in the Service. There are many who would say – as W.H. Auden said of George Orwell – “how I wish he were still alive, so that I could read his comments on contemporary events”.