Social Justice, Human Rights and the Values of Probation
Becoming a Probation Officer
I have participated in recruitment interviews where applicants have been asked ‘Why do you want to become a probation officer?’ and sometimes the question makes me feel uneasy: for I have never been sure how to answer that question for myself. As I left university, having studied Classics, Ancient History and Philosophy, I had no idea what career I wanted to follow. A chance set of circumstances led to my being appointed as ‘Assistant Warden’ at a hostel for former prisoners, where I was to work, living on the premises, for just over a year. It had been established as a therapeutic community, though none of us staff really appreciated what that meant. Some of our residents had come from Grendon Underwood and a few more from Broadmoor and they
R. Canton (*)
© The Author(s) 2016
M. Vanstone, P. Priestley (eds.), Probation and Politics, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59557-7_4
certainly had a fuller understanding of ‘therapy’ than we did. I found that I loved the work and immersed myself in the life of the hostel. It was suggested to me that I should next train to become a probation officer and although I didn’t really know what that involved, I applied and was offered a place to study for a Master’s and the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work at the University of Nottingham.
Probably the most valuable learning from this course took place on the practice placements, but I was also introduced to some ideas that were new to me and that have had an abiding influence. In particular, I recall my first introduction to criminology, including the critiques of the ‘medical model’ (presented to us by Philip Bean, whose arguments and style are well illustrated in Bean 1976), which gave me a different way of thinking about the work I was to undertake as a probation officer. The writings of Ivan Illich on medicine and on education convinced me that the problems of living cannot be resolved by technical means and I began to think this was true of crime as well (see below). Steven Lukes’s brilliant monograph on power (Lukes 1974) helped me to understand better how power may be exercised.
After qualification, I worked for the Nottinghamshire Probation Service and after 9 years as a probation officer, I was appointed Senior Probation Officer (Training) (one of the national SPOTs). Several different roles came later and one to mention, if only in passing, is Senior Family Court Welfare Officer. This ‘civil work’ merits more attention in probation’s history than it usually receives.
Skills of mediation and conciliation, now applied to other circumstances of conflict (victim - offender mediation, neighbourhood conflicts) were originally acquired and honed in Family Court work. Challenges of diversity and difference of culture (questions of family responsibilities and rights, ‘proper parenthood’) were immediately manifest here and Family Court staff had to engage with these challenges. Inter-agency work - especially liaison with other agencies around child protection - developed here at least as early as it did through formal partnerships in relation to criminal work. An awareness of domestic violence and of the many ways in which (most usually) fathers could harass and undermine their former partners was also often acquired in this context.
... the participation of probation officers in these activities enriched their understanding and broadened their repertoire of skills. An holistic appreciation of people in the context of their personal lives and relationships - working with people not just with regard to the offences they have committed - afforded insights that offered a much more rounded understanding. It also offered an enhanced appreciation of the ways in which relationships can conduce to desistance. (Canton 2007a, p. 146)
I next moved to work in the Midlands Training Consortium, established in 1998 to implement the new training qualification, the Diploma in Probation Studies (DipPS). I had already for some years worked as a Visiting Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Nottingham. This had encouraged me to read criminology much more systematically than I had ever done before and then to think about adding my own contributions to the literature. Joining the Consortium brought me close to probation education once more and it seemed a natural step, some 3 years later, to join De Montfort University, where I came to lead a large DipPS programme.
While I am certain that our practice background enriches our abilities to teach and research, I suspect that many others who followed this career trajectory - from practitioner to trainer to scholar - may feel as I do that there are large gaps in our knowledge of the subject because of the ad hoc manner in which we learnt about it. Gaps in our skills may be even larger: I have never had any training in methods of research and my understanding of some methods is decidedly wobbly.