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Reflective practice and questions of identity

David Coley, KSS CRC Research Unit – first published in Probation Quarterly, June 2018

David Coley discusses some of his Sir Graham Smith Award final research findings in a follow-up to his earlier article in Issue 6 of Probation Quarterly.

How is your professional reflective practice getting along these days?  When, where and how do you undertake reflection in work; or are you struggling with time and workload pressures?  These are some of the questions raised within a recent research study, facilitated by a Sir Graham Smith Research Award, which explored reflective practice amongst probation officers. In a time of seismic change within probation services the issue of reflective practice within a continuous professional development framework has perhaps been neglected. As the dust begins to settle on the Transforming Rehabilitation process it is time to revisit these questions and place them within a context of understanding contemporary probation staff professional identities.

Although the research focussed on probation officers working within the National Probation Service, the issues it examined and some of the findings can be seen to have a broader resonance throughout probation services. Five female and five male officers were interviewed and vignettes of their work-based narratives are conveyed here as we listen to their voices and find clues to the meanings and understandings they reveal – clues not only in relation to reflective practice but also their self-perceptions, aspirations of continuous development in work and what it means to be a professional.

If we think of reflection as enabling staff to make sense of their working experiences through analysing them in situ, it can also be a process of putting thoughtful practice into a practical learning situation.

Considering the value of reflective practice, probation officer Martin echoes the views of other research participants when he indicates that:


“…there’s nuances and subtleties to everybody’s personalities and the reasons for their offending and you’ve got to see all those people as individuals. As soon as you start doing that you have to reflect on what you’re doing with them and what they’re saying to you. So yeah, for me it’s the foundation of what we do.”


With the project focus on reflective practice, the research identified a wide range of themes emerging from the exploration, the interim findings of which were discussed in Probation Quarterly, Issue 6, March 2016.  These will not be replicated here but suffice to say that those interviewed see reflective practice as an essential prerequisite to dealing with complex, disadvantaged and, at times, damaged human beings. Consequently, some key questions relating to the necessity for scheduled, compulsory, clinical supervision, especially for female staff operating in a high risk of
harm environment, emerged within research participant narratives. Any available time and space for reflection was clearly appreciated in light of high caseload pressures and time limitations.

Embedded within experiences of reflection, ideas of professionalism and continuous personal development in work also surfaced.

Considering professionalism as containing aspects of evolving and intersecting collective values, abilities, experiences, beliefs and motives, Carla tells us:


“That’s what to me being a professional is, it’s understanding that it’s not up to you to take the moral high ground or to think that you know it all. Being a professional is to use your diagnostic tools, to look at the person in front of you and think about what their needs may be and what their risks may be. To make an assessment, a professional assessment, based on the person in front of you and the situation in front of you, which will be different virtually every time.”


Clues arise here from Carla relating to the moral aspects of working with unique individuals and their ever-shifting personal requirements, whilst simultaneously utilising analytical tools and individual abilities to assess dynamic risks. Samuel takes us a stage further as he locates his learning and development within his understanding of professionalism, explaining that:


“…in an ideal world we would have time in our work schedule to read articles…., I do reflect on that quite a lot, because you need to move forwards professionally. You can’t just stay still from the day you graduate……in other organisations there’s that classic thing about you wouldn’t go to your doctor and expect them not to have done any training since they qualified.”


Inferences are made that Samuel works in a less than ideal environment, yet still feels the need to progress with his development through knowledge enhancement, comparing his experiences to other professions and indicating his necessity to prevent personal stagnation at work.

Sally completes a suggested picture of staff expectations surrounding what it means to be professional when she shares with us her amazement at not being registered as a practitioner, saying that:


“It’s crazy!  (If…) Probation got its act together and ensured that the quality of probation officers was being kept up through registration, and the need to prove reflective practice, that’s another arm of what should happen and to show that it’s valued. So in order to keep your registration you have to have the reflective practice. Then employers (are) going to have to pay attention to that, otherwise they’re going to have no probation officers.”


Aside from the exasperation expressed in Sally’s voice, pertinent issues relevant to maintaining the quality of staff interventions with service users, as well as the pressing need to secure staffing levels, emerge in her story of everyday experiences on the front line.

Within this study we find an evocative picture of reflective practice enabling probation staff to preserve a sense of identity and derive meaning from within the context of their working environment.  Although some of the central areas of reflection remain those of professional values, skills application, knowledge development, risk management and service user needs, there are indications that reflection cannot be confined within the purely functional parameters of any role. It appears to envelop wider matters as it considers professional identity and attendant expectations. Staff in this study call into question the forces shaping their working identities as their voices express a keen sense of personal agency. This research offers us a glimpse into these issues and a starting point from which to extend more questions and further a collective discourse.


Read the full research report: