It is time to recover this slogan from the politicians. One of the dangers of the use of educational techniques in social work is that we transform the offender from ‘patient’ into ‘student’. The probation officer finds the ‘teacher’ role an attractive one. The guru, Miss Jean Brodie, the favourite college tutor – these tantalising images seem to offer the prospect of working in harmony with the offender towards a better future, with the teacher holding the authority and knowledge that s/he imparts to the lower status student. As with schools however, the difficult pupil becomes a threat to this positive fantasy. Schools are tempted towards over-selectiveness and exclusion; probation led groups are similarly tempted. Where the difficult offenders are contained in the group, the leaders can feel the fights are a sign of failure – ‘if only those fights could be avoided, the group would be able to do some real work’ can be the feeling.
A different framework is possible:
- The fighting of adolescence is essential and healthy in the normal growth to maturity – it is how people learn.
- The evidence about poor prognosis of offenders who conform to their ‘treatment’ in prison and on probation suggests that fights can be a sign of hope not failure.
- A fight with the probation officer is after all evidence that the officer matters, and is likely to be more memorable in years to come than in a relationship marked by bland conformity.
- An offence, by its nature, represents some kind of fight with society, better to have it out than for it to continue as a secret life of the offender
This should not be seen as a rejection of educational techniques in work with offenders but as an example of the way we should approach such techniques as social workers not as aspirant teachers. After all, for most of the offenders, ‘ordinary’ teaching has not been enough.