Listening to the news recently, I was concerned at hearing about the impact of the work that the prison officers do and the impairment this has caused to their health . 
I wanted to share my thoughts about the role of reflective practice with specific reference to prison service officers and managers, although this could also apply to others, such as the emergency services, who work in the public sector under dangerous and challenging circumstances. 

Why is reflection important? 

Reflection is a continuous process. It helps us to learn from our past and review those experiences through the application of critical thinking. Without it, it is difficult to change what we are doing. 
Continuous Reflective Practice impacts on improved behaviours and processes. 
Reflection within an Action Learning Set context is fundamental in helping individuals in challenging work roles to become more self aware and confident at tackling forthcoming change. 
Action Learning has shown that reflective experiences can be enjoyable but also uncomfortable as we unfold painful emotions in association with past experiences. Action Learning is the process “in which collaboration around a mutual problem is central.” (Revans 1988 ) 
Reflection remains an important stage that we need to pass through before we learn to resolve and move on from an issue. 
Why wouldn’t we include reflective practice within core leadership and team building contexts in-house more regularly? 
If we are given the right space to reflect and contemplate our knowledge about a situation and our perception, values can shift and we learn to self-manage conflict and problems better. 

The evidence 

A study was undertaken at the Scottish Prison Service College by Katrina Morrison, a lecturer in Criminology, which supports reflective practice helping to improve professional practice.  
In her study she explored training that “equips officers to respond effectively to critical incidents (e.g. riots, hostage taking etc.). Reflection is a natural response on these occasions; indeed, this is probably the time in which it is easiest to reflect on why adverse events have occurred and how they could be prevented in the future .” 
The need for, and the value of, work based reflective practice is heightened in the context of a custodial professional culture because prison officers have enormous power to exercise discretion in their role; though officers have legal power, they tend to exercise more ‘informal power, and personal, rather than legal, authority’ (Arnold, 2016). Furthermore, in any profession which gives employees the legal right to impose harm or sanctions, self-awareness and reflection is even more important. 

The benefits of Action Learning in a prison setting 

Action Learning Sets help to embed workplace learning into practice for improved outcomes. 
Employees benefit from the process - it supports those who are seeking promotion to draw on their experiences in competency-based promotional interviews 
Action Learning can help employees to record their reflective experiences and show improved outcomes to a problem 
There is a fundamental need to commission Action Learning Sets facilitation skills in-house to improve public sector work. If we embed Action Learning within existing training services, we can support people towards optimum health and improve the quality and impact of what they are doing. 
Outsourcing can be perceived as costly, so an Action Learning Sets mentoring approach may be more beneficial. This approach quickly helps to identify work related issues and follow up processes so that issues can be identified and resolved. 
Action Learning cannot be forced upon anyone; the process is collaborative and works best when people are committed and are using reflective learning. 
However, it does require stakeholder engagement from those who in influential roles and from those who are ultimately responsible for the design and delivery of training and learning. 

Summary – how Action Learning can benefit employers and employees in the prison sector 

Embeds reflective practice into training and development services 
Identifies risk and priority areas for actions 
Can help to demonstrate effective risk management 
Helps facilitate a specific project difficulty 
Supports improvement at operational and strategic level 
Offers peer mentoring learning opportunities 
Supports core leadership skills 
To find out how Action Learning Sets can work alongside your current learning and development programmes, contact Jigsaw Initiatives on 01803 469396 or use our contact form
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