In the heart of the old county of Westmoreland ten probation colleagues from all parts of Britain were arriving at a remote hotel location in what had all the elements of a Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Weekend. The death knell has been sounding for probation for some years now and this group were 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 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, collectively shared well over 200 years engagement in probation matters, whether as practitioners, managers, trainers, consultants, researchers and academics. But this was not a conventional conference. Though it was to take place over two days and had an over arching 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, untested 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 preoccupations which were designed to create a real and critical debate. This was not intended to be just a talking shop amongst fellow travellers though more of that later.
This was only the second time I had attempted this kind of event. The last time, circa 1975, was 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 and the like 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 RD 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 a 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 3 pm. A football game had started outside and then as 3 pm neared everyone disappeared, I discovered later, to the pub at the bottom of the lane. I sat and sulked, thought 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 yearned for those parts of such conferences where free discussion took place and the agenda could arise more naturally and reflectively. In my experience that space for reflection and contemplation has got less and less over the years, though the conference experience has not necessarily improved.
There was a real danger that this discussion could descend into a depressed and fatalistic conversation about the havoc unfolding under the bifurcation of probation and the growing role of the private sector in shaping delivery. But stimulated by a discussion on what might constitute the essence of probation, what ever 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 formal discussion had ended with some relaxed social discussion and a feeling of a great first day.
At the outset I had indicated that the theme was the title of my valedictory lecture to take place on Thursday 28th April at Sheffield Hallam University when I will retire. (Book your free place now, follow this link: (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/hccj-conference-seminar-series-13th-annual-portal-lecture-tickets-19512552570 ) Accompanying that lecture will be the papers, thoughts, polemics, manifestos, photos etc created during these two days, and to be reproduced in Vol 14.1 of the British Journal of Community Justice, my last issue as editor. This issue will be launched at the lecture. 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. But I am convinced this will be a journal well worth reading. Watch this space.
I could not have been happier with the way the event had 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. 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!