Friday, 19 August 2022

A Worthwhile Read

As distraction from the current farce called 'Probation Day', and I can't help but notice Napo are ignoring it this year (only its second year), lets highlight a paper published in the latest edition of the Probation Journal. As with most academic papers, there's a lot in it and sadly the audience will almost certainly be small, but it pretty much covers the mess we're in and the fact it's not certain probation can survive to bake any future bloody cakes. This is but a small extract and the complete paper can be found here.

The reflective practitioner in transition. Probation work during reintegration of probation services in England and Wales


This article evaluates the recent history of probation services in England and Wales. The author – currently working as a Practice Teacher Assessor in the Probation Service – considers the politicisation of probation, identified as one outcome of a rhetorical narrative to ‘act tough’ on crime and the impact of the New Public Management model of organisational accountability, its focus on performance and targets, and, arguably, the diminution of the professional role. Following semi-privatisation, and currently reintegration, of probation services, the article puts forward an argument for a realignment of practice, to focus on the supervisory relationship, professional autonomy, and the reflective practitioner.

Challenges to reflective practice - workloads
The whole thing about professional identity I feel has gone and you can’t measure that, can you. You can’t quantify what that means to you as a practitioner, what you see going on around you. But it just feels like a series of tasks, every day you have a to-do list and a set of targets to meet. You are making decisions and, somewhere in the middle, you might exercise your professional judgement. It doesn’t actually feel that way, because all the time it's about a process rather than about looking at anything, having the capacity to reflect on what you’re doing and look at the bigger picture and understand what's going on and have time to talk to anybody about what it is you’re trying to do at any point in time (NAPO branch official and Probation Officer in Kirton and Guillaume 2015).

The work is not manageable, in the sense that you can do the basics, but have no time to dig into the detail. No time for reflection or professional curiosity (Probation Officer, National Probation Service. HMIP, 2021).
The first quotation above is derived from a research study conducted in the immediate aftermath of Transforming Rehabilitation, which sought to evaluate the impact of the restructure on probation practitioners and, in particular, on their sense of professional identity. The second is from an HMIP report, considering the impact of caseloads and workloads on probation practitioners. (HMIP, 2021).

In addition to performance and targets, there seem to be two further key issues which currently shape and determine the nature of the work which probation staff undertake; and, importantly, how they feel about it. The first relates to the volume of work – the number of cases held, and the impact of the type of work undertaken. A recent HMIP (2021) report identified that excessive case and workloads were proving highly detrimental to standards of supervision, as well as to the health and well-being of staff. Additionally, the impact of TR resulted in highly specific caseloads for each sector of The Probation Service, with potentially deleterious effects.

Consequently, an aspect of practice which has changed significantly has been the longevity of supervisory relationships. At one point in its history, a probation officer would complete a Pre-Sentence Report for the court, a full assessment of needs and risks relating to offending and harm. Sentencing disposals would be considered and a proposal made. Post sentence, it was likely that the court report author, or a colleague in the same team, would take responsibility for supervision. This localised and simple model of assessment and allocation brought enormous benefits, in terms of the engagement of service users in the process, resting in large part on the validity of assessment, and the formation of a relationship with the Service and its practitioners from the outset. In addition, I would argue that it provided practitioners with a sense of mastery, agency, and ownership over their work.

In this context, the TOM is encouraging, in that it notes the delivery of probation via PODs (Probation Operational Delivery structures):
a small cross grade grouping of Probation Practitioners and a case administrator that draws on the skills and experiences within that team to support each other's probation work and enables service users to benefit from a familiar relationship with a small team to help improve continuity and engagement (HMPPS, 2021, emphasis mine).
This model seems designed to foster a sense of belonging and continuity which could provide positive benefits for supervisees and practitioners – with a possible positive impact on successful completion of orders and licences, and the retention of staff over time.

Training and continuing professional development

Secondly, the current model of Probation Officer training, the PQiP encompasses all the tensions relating to current probation practice. Several authors have suggested that PQiP learners consider that the training programme as currently configured presents a model of practice which is not borne out by their experience (see L Annison et al., 2008; Tangen and Briah, 2018). It is disturbing that trainees continue to experience these dissonances in probation officer training – perhaps in part reflecting the tension in their (binary) role, in that they are employed as Probation Service Officer grade staff, with operational commitments; and as trainee probation officers, with notional workload relief to enable both academic study, and opportunities to develop professional competence. Competence is assessed via the Vocational Qualification (VQ) element of the award; assessment is based upon key indicators of effective practice which have been evidenced in several studies. The assessment of skills of engagement with service users is the first VQ unit required for completion – in recognition of the reality that an absence of these skills and attributes is likely to nullify the effectiveness of supervision. Yet, to revisit an earlier argument, Tangen and Briah suggest that there has been:
a move from individuals educated to critically reflect on their practice, to technicians trained to implement specific processes, eroding the professionalism and autonomy of probation practitioners (Tangen and Briah, 2018).
Carr (2020) asserts that training for probation practitioners is required to encompass theoretical knowledge, alongside;
Advanced skills demonstrating mastery and innovation required to solve complex and unpredictable problems, (and) a degree of responsibility and autonomy involving the ability to manage complex professional activities (Carr, 2020).
The current culture of probation work seems to oscillate between dual tensions, firstly between the managerialist approach, and the motivations for practitioners to sustain the professional relationship with the people whom they supervise, and which, for most probation workers, is the primary driver for motivation to do the job (Phillips, 2014; Tidmarsh, 2020). Secondly, within a context of managerialist approaches, the artistry of the reflective practitioner described by Schon seems a remote vision. The reality of overwork, targets, now set against a backdrop of further organisational change – which is additionally likely to involve an extension to remote working, at least in part, in the wake of the Exceptional Delivery Model response to the COVID-19 pandemic – suggests that at least some of the aspirations of the TOM may be difficult to realise, in the short term at least

These latter tensions are explored by Ainslie et al. (2022) in a paper which evaluates the findings from very recent research into the implementation of the Reflective Practice Supervision Standards (RPSS) within the NPS (RPSS is a key component of the SEEDS framework, originally delivered in probation in 2013/14, shortly prior to the implementation of Transforming Rehabilitation). The study highlights the value placed by practitioners on opportunities for reflective supervision, whilst simultaneously noting the barriers to its effective implementation (as outlined above). The title of their paper, ‘A nice idea, but…’ neatly encapsulates this conflict in demands on probation workers, and on their supervising managers.

Conclusion - the future of probation work

If events of the last decade teach us anything, it is that prediction and forecasting are futile endeavours, as much in probation as in the wider global context. During the early years of the 21st century, Nash (1999) considered it likely that probation officers would become much more aligned with the police – and possibly become known as ‘polibation officers,’ with the loss of autonomy that such a job title implies. In 2016, Mair suggested that ‘the probation service is under threat […] faced with extinction…’(Mair, 2016). Subsequently, writing in 2018, Vanstone noted that:
The probation service in England and Wales is much reduced, a substantial amount of work transferred to private sector community rehabilitation companies. It may not survive but now, part of the civil service and confined to the oversight classified as being at high risk of reoffending, more than ever it needs innovative and effective practice in order to continue its unique contribution to the rehabilitation of people who have offended (Vanstone, 2018, emphasis mine).
So – it is impossible not to be acutely aware of predictions of the demise of probation as a unique and valuable part of the criminal justice system, by several authors, over a period of time. And yet – against the odds, the Probation Service remains, unquestionably battered and diminished, but with the appearance of seeking to hold its core values and approaches intact. Mair (2016) asserts that these traditional values and approaches of probation work will inevitably place the service at a disadvantage in fighting its corner with regard to tougher approaches, and achieving measurable outcomes. He attributes this, in part, to ongoing bemusement about the mystery of the core professional relationship; and, also, to the fact that probation practitioners are notoriously bashful at asserting their professional skills, and the evidence base for their practice. Mair asserts that, historically, the identity of probation was that of ‘doing good work with bad people - and that was its own justification.’ (Mair, 2016). Phillips (2020), citing Tomczak, suggests that ‘there are too many ‘directors and detractors’ who highlight what has gone wrong and what needs to happen next, but an insufficient number of ‘effectors’ to put those recommendations into practice.’ Probably both are correct, placing probation work in the invidious position of being good at what it does, yet limited in its capacity to assert its validity as an organisation, and seemingly reluctant to aggressively pursue its unique agenda in the political arena – a significant deficit within the context of an increasingly politicised service. Deering (2010) suggests that ‘ultimately, perhaps, probation practice is based in faith that it is an effective moral good’. In this regard, the values and approaches of contemporary probation practitioners would not seem out of place to the original Police Court Missionaries.

Much has been lost and much has been gained in probation work over its hundred-plus years of existence. It is ironic that, at a point in time when significant organisational change is being revisited for overtly positive and constructive reasons, it also could be at most risk of losing its defining characteristics – of purposeful, humane, one-to-one work with people to effect change; and the informed, reflective approach of practitioners to operate effectively in the liminal world of probation practice. It is possible to applaud the retreat from privatisation, and to remain fearful for the survival of the core values of probation work.

Mawby and Worrall (2013) refer to probation as ‘an honourable profession,’ and conclude by asserting that:
It would be courageous for…the government to respect that this work inevitably involves a willingness to work holistically and optimistically, though not naively, with uncertainty, ambivalence and (to a degree) failure. Someone has to do it.
With these thoughts in mind, it seems ironic that, at a time when there is much to celebrate, in the reintegration of probation work into one public sector organisation, there is also much to fear. The current phase of probation organisation provides grounds for optimism; and yet, it seems possible that this is a period of considerable jeopardy for the traditional values and culture of probation work, the primacy of the professional relationship, and the professional identity of practitioners. These concerns reflect the tension between official stated aims and objectives; and the reality of the lived experience of people who work in, and who are supervised by, probation. Subjectively, I remain of the view that it is entirely possible that the Probation Service will survive in recognisable form for another century, for the reasons outlined by Mawby and Worrall; and, perhaps perversely, I remain hopeful, if appropriately sceptical, regarding its future organisation, and the delivery of its service.

Anne Burrell


  1. In contrast the Ministry of Justice is using it’s propaganda approach to paint a different picture. It does confirm Pqips are trained to implement specific processes, thus successful eroded the former professionalism and autonomy of probation practitioners.

    What did you enjoy most about the PQiP programme?

    I enjoyed the PQiP study days where we met with our cohort. I found these days helpful as we would share our personal experience of the programme and discuss any questions we had. It was nice to feel part of a team, with people going through the same journey as you.

    How have you used your life experiences as part of role since completing PQiP? 

    My time as a prison officer, before joining PQiP, helped me to better understand where some of the people on probation I work with are coming from when they talk about their experiences within the justice system.
    What would you say to someone who is considering joining PQiP? Do you have any tips for the application process? 

    It is a very intense job, where you will see and hear of some difficult cases which may cause you to feel a variety of emotions. It’s important to be able to switch off and have a solid work-life balance. Time management and prioritisation of work is key, so focus on these skills in the application process. You need to be willing to learn and be adaptable, as we deal with change on a daily basis.

  2. "Target operating model" Target. Cloud cuckoo land more like. Bears no resemblence to what is actually being operated. And no resemblence to the horrible HMPPS culture

  3. From Russell Webster;

    “In the past year, 835 probation services officers left the service. This is an increase of 563 (207.0%) compared to the year ending 30 June 2021 and an increase of 113 (15.7%) compared to the number who left in the year ending 31 March 2022.The number of leavers has increased considerably since June 2021, which is likely attributable to competition in the labour market.”

    It’s not looking good, especially if the probation officer training programme is abysmal and full of young, white, female graduates who are deluded about having “life experiences” and have ingested too many MoJ key phrases.

    1. Yesterday (18 August 2022), Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) published its latest quarterly workforce statistics, showing staffing levels at the end of June this year. They make for pretty grim reading. The main concern is a big jump in the number of staff leaving both services.

      Probation staffing
      There was a slight increase of 85 FTE (1.9%) in the number of probation officers in post since 30 June 2021 and an increase of 204 FTE (4.7%) compared to 31 March 2022. In addition to the band 4 probation officers, there were 5,811 FTE band 3 probation services officers: a slight increase of 94 FTE (1.7%) since 30 June 2021 but a very noticeable decrease of 293 FTE (4.8%) since 31 March 2022.

  4. From Civil Service World.

    The Institute of Government warn that probation services need to improve, or the most recent restructuring that came with reunification risks being added to the list of failures that's been seen with other most recent restructuring.


    1. 'Aggressive' probation service merger 'caused unnecessary pressure' on staff

      Renationalisation of probation services "mostly successful" but rushed, Institute for Government says

      The speed at which the Ministry of Justice renationalised outsourced probation services “caused unnecessary pressure" on staff, a think tank has said.

      The reunification of probation services in England and Wales between 2019 and 2021 was “mostly successful in bringing together many different component parts” but with “bumps in the road the MoJ should have foreseen”, the Institute for Government said.

      But the IfG’s latest report warns that “swift action” is needed to improve probation services or the latest transformation “risks being added to the long list of unsuccessful historical restructures”.

      The merger was the fourth major restructuring of probation services in 20 years. It reversed then-justice secretary Chris Grayling’s failed 2014 Transforming Rehabilitation plan, which saw parts of the probation service privatised into community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).

      The MoJ set out its finalised plans for the reunification in June 2020, with a target for all services to be fully returned to the MoJ within a year. It successfully met this deadline on 26 June 2021, transferring 7,000 CRC staff to HM Prison and Probation Service.

      This was an “impressive” achievement – particularly given that, according to the report, an MoJ non-executive director privately gave the timetable a 3% chance of success – but the transition should have been extended by up to six months, the IfG said.

      One of the key problems was that IT systems were not ready when CRC staff transferred to the MoJ, which meant they had to keep their existing cases until the new system was developed to accept them. They joined the HMPPS system by December 2021.

    2. These IT delays “led to unnecessary pressure on some staff,” the IfG said.

      More than half of probation staff said they had been dissatisfied with high caseloads at the time of the merger and the guidance they were offered on how to manage this, a September 2021 survey by HM Inspectorate of Probation found.

      The “aggressive” timetable also meant CRC staff were not given enough time for a proper induction, the IfG report added.

      Existing caseload pressures were exacerbated by staff shortages, with CRCs freezing recruitment for up to three months prior to unification to minimise the costs of hiring and then moving additional staff over to the MoJ, the IfG said.

      “While understandable, this led to critical gaps in the workforce,” the report said.

      Despite the workload issues, probation staff who answered the survey said the transition had mostly been well managed.

      Staffing issues remain

      The IfG report highlighted how short staffed the National Probation Service – which continued to manage high-risk cases after the management of medium and low-risk offenders was outsourced to CRCs – has been in the last few years and how there is still much to do to get the workforce up to the right capacity.

      There were more than a thousand vacancies in the new Probation Service at the end of March. The MoJ, having already recruited 2,500 trainee probation officers in the last two years, is looking to hire 1,500 extra staff by March 2023.

      While the IfG said this should mean the Probation Service is fully staffed by next spring, it added that officers leaving and increased demand for probation services will mean more investment is needed. The government’s planned 91,000 job cuts – although it is not clear if the next prime minister will stick with this figure – will also make recruitment more difficult, the IfG added.

      As well as easing pressure on staff, the think tank said an extended delayed timetable could have enabled a broader range of services to be available from the start and may have allowed the MoJ to retain some of the benefits of CRCs, such as better case management systems.

      On the other hand, the report accepted that delaying the transition would have kept the poor-performing CRCs in place for longer. Officials had advised ministers at the time the deadline was set that delaying the merger would “prolong the agony” of poor CRC performance.

      The report also made clear how the success of the merger is the only start of improving the service's performance. While the probation reform programme that reunified the service will be formally wound up at the end of 2022, work to improve the performance of probation services will be a lengthy journey, the IfG said.

      Probation services in Birmingham and Solihull have been rated inadequate and services in Warwickshire require improvement, in the probation inspector’s latest reviews.

      The NAO has warned previously that there are "no magic bullets" to improve the service's performance.

      It said in June last year: "Structural change needs to be backed by sustained investment for there to be true improvement. Real transformation is a long-term commitment, and unification is just the beginning of that journey."

      A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As this report recognises, we successfully unified the Probation Service to deliver better and more consistent supervision against a challenging backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.

      “The extra £155m we are now investing in the service every year has allowed us to recruit thousands more staff and encourage further innovation to robustly manage offenders in the community and cut crime.”

  5. Thanks Jim. Parts of it went over my head, but what I took away from it was that the neoliberal approach, which favours targets and shrinking the welfare state, is at odds with probations core values.

    1. Once, the UK probation service was world renowned.
      Unfortunately, it began to get shaped by political ideology rather then being evidence led.
      The consequences of that is the state of the service today.


    2. Another brilliant find 'Getafix!

      Evidence versus politics in British probation

      • Twenty years ago, the Probation Service in England and Wales was widely regarded as world-leading.
      • Since then it has been weakened by a series of politically driven and poorly evidenced changes.
      • A badly flawed and ideologically driven privatisation programme implemented in 2015 has done serious damage.
      • The recent decision to end this failed programme is an opportunity to redesign better.

      We might run this tomorrow, unless we get a scoop. (Ed)

  6. An example of “technicians trained to implement specific processes, eroding the professionalism and autonomy of #probation practitioners” ?

    1. What made you apply to become a probation officer?

      Before starting the trainee probation officer programme (PQiP), I worked as a prison officer. I decided to apply to the programme as I wanted to be able to do more work with people on a one-to-one basis, to try and make a difference. I liked the variety of jobs available within the Probation Service, such as working in courts, prisons and the community. I also wanted a job which was more regular hours, rather than the shift pattern I was on as a prison officer.

      What did you enjoy most about the PQiP programme?

      I enjoyed the PQiP study days where we met with our cohort. I found these days helpful as we would share our personal experience of the programme and discuss any questions we had. It was nice to feel part of a team, with people going through the same journey as you.

      What did you find most challenging?

      I initially found balancing my time to be quite challenging. On Vocational Qualification (VQ)/university study days I would struggle to switch off from my PSO work and focus just on my studies. I found that I would often be contacted by the office on these days for issues with my caseload for recalls to custody. I then found myself doing a fair bit of work outside of work hours to ensure I could get all my university work completed and gather VQ evidence.

      What did you learn during the programme?

      Learning to work with everyone equally and how to manage my own unconscious bias was a big thing. I feel like this is something that I have continued to develop throughout my career since completing the programme.

      What was the balance between training and practical experience?

      There was a lot of practical experience, most of the PQiP programme is spent learning on the job I’d say. At least once a month we’d have some formal training, but most of the time I learnt through ‘doing’, which is how I learn best.

      What support did you receive during the programme?

      We had a PQiP senior probation officer (SPO) who would meet with us monthly, do all our countersigning for reports and provide supervision. This was helpful as the SPO would focus on us specifically as trainees, and would give detailed feedback on our work. We also had our practice tutor assessor, who was based in my office, so I could go to them with any queries at any point.

      How have you used your life experiences as part of role since completing PQiP?

      My time as a prison officer, before joining PQiP, helped me to better understand where some of the people on probation I work with are coming from when they talk about their experiences within the justice system.

      What would you say to someone who is considering joining PQiP? Do you have any tips for the application process?

      It is a very intense job, where you will see and hear of some difficult cases which may cause you to feel a variety of emotions. It’s important to be able to switch off and have a solid work-life balance. Time management and prioritisation of work is key, so focus on these skills in the application process. You need to be willing to learn and be adaptable, as we deal with change on a daily basis.

  7. From Twitter:-

    "I just can not stress enough how annoyed I am about #Probationday. Self-congratulatory back patting by the upper echelons whilst the SoS strips the service of professionalism, resources and voice."

    1. I think probation day could be an import from the good ol' USA.


    2. I think you could be right!

      What is PPPSWeek?

      This year marks the 23rd anniversary of Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision, a celebration that originated in 1999 when APPA members began to request that states across the country recognize the 100,000+ people involved in community corrections. In 1999, APPA began lobbying every state to make a proclamation that one week in July be Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. This was a simple and powerful statement each state could make in celebration of the nearly 100,000 men and women who spend their days working to improve outcomes, both for the individual AND for the public safety of our communities.

      The first #PPPSWeek Proclamation was made by Governor Bill Owens of Colorado that year. Since that first Proclamation, every one of the 50 states has joined in the celebration. In recent years, APPA Executive Director Veronica Cunningham and a team of dedicated staff have visited offices in several states to show our appreciation. APP delivers small baskets of goodies, shares your achievements to our membership and/or learns new ways we can help make your lives easier.

  8. Staff: We want to talk about pay and conditions.

    Management: (oh dear, politics) Come along to our #bespokepersoncentredbakeoffmagicalvoluntarismday

  9. From Twitter:-

    "I had nothing to do with #Probationday as I had too much actual work to do. It's likely I'll be logging on over the weekend as well to get it all done. I can just imagine how it went though, with senior staff repeating the same rubbish about how well everyone is doing.

    People are not doing well. We are struggling and no one seems to listen or actually care. I love my job but it is incredibly hard. My SPO is fantastic but she is struggling too. We are losing good, experienced officers on a regular basis.

    When I started we had 8 PO's, now we have just 3. There are no plans to bring in anyone new. We manage some very risky, dangerous individuals and are under a lot of pressure. We don't care about wellbeing days, sharing baby pictures or whatever other rubbish seniors come up with

    Where are the exit interviews for people who leave? Where is the salary increase for those at the top of their band? Those of us left still care about our cases but it's getting too much. We are tired. So, very, tired."

    1. And where are the pay increases and retention payments to keep those that are left and to attract new probation staff?

  10. Everything the last post wrote chimes with me. I'm exhausted. I try so hard. I work tirelessly, often at night and weekends. Allocations (dumps) galore. I'm only a NQO, but the work has piled on. I don't know how sustainable this all is. I feel bad for missing deadlines, aspects of detail of a case; a person not housed- we're better than this, or should be. But if people are leaving in droves, then the elephant in the room remains large, grey and whispering, "I'm still here, watcha gonna do about me"-I'm not getting any smaller or less significant"

  11. From Twitter:-

    "It’s not looking good at all as appears frontline split between 18yr plus then less than 2years. Training program not fit for purpose. SPOs inexperienced in risk and roles as desperate to get off frontline. Probation lost and FUBAR fucked up beyond all recognition.

    Fuckery Friday doesn’t apply to Prison probation officers we weren’t included in wearing purple, cake eating or baby photos .. out of sight out of mind but on occasion fine by me !!!omic swallowed probation officers."

    1. More fool you for applying to goto prison. It was well know that omic jobs would mean being detaches from probation and subservient to prison governors.