Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Probation's Journey

The latest Academic Insight paper from HM Probation Inspectorate very succinctly charts the journey 'probation' has found itself on over recent time and how it might yet be restored to something worthwhile following the TR omnishambles, the pathetic justification for which still makes my blood boil. The following is the first of two lengthy extracts, but as always readers are encouraged to read the whole document.   

Professionalism in Probation


HM Inspectorate of Probation is committed to reviewing, developing and promoting the evidence base for high-quality probation and youth offending services. Academic Insights are aimed at all those with an interest in the evidence base. We commission leading academics to present their views on specific topics, assisting with informed debate and aiding understanding of what helps and what hinders probation and youth offending services. 

This report was kindly produced by Dr Matt Tidmarsh, reviewing the literature on ‘professionalism’ and applying it to the probation service. After years of instability, the recent unification of the service provides an opportunity to refocus on the professional status of practitioners. It is vital that there is sufficient recruitment and that staff then benefit from ongoing investment, developing their professional knowledge, expertise and autonomy, so that they are able to deliver a high-quality service. At the same time, the history and culture of probation should be respected, embracing its identity as a relational, collaborative and person-centred service. Practitioners thus need to be empowered to develop positive relationships with people on probation and other key stakeholders. Within our inspections of probation services, we will continue to examine whether staff are being enabled to deliver a high-quality, personalised and responsive service for all people on probation. 

Dr Robin Moore 
Head of Research

2.1 Probation’s professional project 

McWilliams’s (1983, 1985, 1986, 1987) seminal quartet of essays on the professionalisation of probation comes closest to a ‘life history’ (Abbott, 1988) approach to the study of the service as a would-be profession. He documented how, over the first few decades of the twentieth century, the service came to exhibit ideal-typical professional traits. For example, after several decades of ad-hoc provision coordinated by the Church of England, the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 established probation as a public service with a clear mission, to ‘advise, assist, [and] befriend’ – words that constituted an ideology of service premised on relationships with those subject to supervision in the community. Religious influences on practice were gradually displaced by social work knowledge learnt through education and training, which proved the ‘scientific’ basis for autonomy over work delivered with people on probation. That McWilliams (1985, p.260) considered such knowledge, methods, and values the ‘justification for claims of professionalism’ hints at the importance of the acquisition of ideal-typical traits in shaping the service’s professional identity and legitimacy (Tidmarsh, 2022).

Probation’s ‘professional project’ (Larson, 1977) was consolidated in the postwar period, as the service was unequivocally recognised as a profession. The 1962 Morison Report, for example, recognised the probation officer as ‘a professional caseworker, employing in a specialized field, skill which he holds in common with other social workers’ (c.f. Jarvis, 1972, p.66). Given this institutional support, the service continued to expand: it assumed responsibilities for prisoners’ pre-release ‘throughcare’, post-release ‘aftercare’, and community service (Jarvis, 1972). Between 1951 and 1981, the number of full-time, qualified probation officers increased from just over 1,000 to nearly 5,500 while the service’s total caseload grew from 55,000 to approximately 157,000 (McWilliams, 1987). As such, imbued with state support for its knowledge, methods, and values, the probation officer was viewed as: 
‘an independent practitioner, supported and supervised in professional practice by the probation service hierarchy’ (May and Annison, 1998, p.161). 
However, the ideal-typical tenets on which probation’s claims to professionalism rested have, in recent decades, been subjected to considerable challenge. This has occurred against the backdrop of several significant changes, including a more punitive socio-political climate; the rise of risk management practices; and numerous, centralising organisational restructurings oriented towards greater efficiency and accountability. Heightened political and media hysteria over crime (Downes and Morgan, 2007) heralded the emergence of ‘tough on crime’ policies and a significant increase in the prison population (Garland, 2001). As political confidence in the service waned, successive governments targeted the autonomy of practitioners, chief officers, and locally administered services (Robinson et al., 2012). The convergence of performance targets and National Standards (introduced in 1988 and 1992, respectively) and monitored via an intensification of audits have thereby limited practitioners’ ability to exercise discretion (Mair and Burke, 2011). 

Following the growth in those subject to criminal justice supervision, in prison and in the community, risk management practices became entrenched within probation. Following the abolition of social work training requirements for practice in 1995, risk has arguably become the dominant knowledge-base within probation (Tidmarsh, 2021a). While evidence indicates that practitioners have welcomed the greater consistency provided by risk assessment tools such as the Offender Assessment System (Mair et al., 2006; Phillips, 2016), for their use promotes ‘defensible’ decision-making (Kemshall, 1998; see also Academic Insights paper 2021/14) in ways that are not ‘anti-professional’ (Robinson, 2003), pressures to record information have nevertheless detracted from the time available to spend with people on probation (Tidmarsh, 2021b).

Since the turn of the century, the service has undergone numerous restructurings which have sought to enhance central control over services – such that, for staff, organisational change has become ‘a defining characteristic of their professional existence’ (Robinson and Burnett 2007, p.332). And yet, despite changes which have attempted to bring organisational culture into line with prevailing punitive ideology (Robinson and Ugwudike, 2012), probation’s ideology of service has persevered. Mawby and Worrall (2013) have shown that several generations of probation staff are united through a shared value base centred on working with people. Indeed, research has consistently emphasised the durability of ‘probation values’ premised on a belief in the capacity of individuals to change (Deering, 2010; Robinson et al., 2016; Tidmarsh, 2020a). These values remain key to professionalism in probation, especially after the changes wrought by Transforming Rehabilitation.

2.2 Transforming Rehabilitation: the ‘diminution of the probation profession’ 

As argued above, ‘professionalism’ was integral to the justifications given for the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. This was primarily expressed in terms of professional discretion: top-down, bureaucratic state provision of services, it was contended, contributed to ineffective practice and the spiralling costs of justice, as practitioners were focused on meeting performance targets. Competing for services, by contrast, would spark the ‘innovation’ required to reduce reoffending and render probation more efficient (MoJ, 2010, 2013). The desire ‘to unlock… professionalism’ (MoJ, 2010, p.9) to improve performance thus sought to bring together the interests of diverse groups – the public, private providers, practitioners, and people on probation – with appeals to the superiority of the market over the state. 

However, Transforming Rehabilitation merely continued the decades-long challenge to the ideal-typical tenets on which professionalism in probation was grounded – such that, in her final report as Chief Inspector of Probation, Dame Glenys Stacey lamented the ‘deplorable diminution of the probation profession’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019a, p.3). For example, the manner in which staff were allocated after the reforms spoke to the Government’s view on professional knowledge, education, and training in the private sector (Tidmarsh, 2020b), with most qualified probation officers being shifted to the publicly-owned National Probation Service (NPS) – which was presented as a specialist body, ‘drawing on the expertise and experience of its staff… and managing those who pose the greatest risk of harm to the public’ (MoJ, 2013, p.4). Many experienced staff also left the service in protest at the reforms, leaving a much diminished ‘pool of collective professional knowledge’ (Kirton and Guillaume, 2019, p.12). That less qualified staff in the privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were doing work formerly undertaken by qualified officers (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019a) meant the boundaries between Probation Service Officer and Probation Officer roles were blurred, part of an attempt to render services more ‘efficient’ through cheaper labour (Tidmarsh, 2020b). As such, the NPS were perceived, by many in the service and the wider criminal justice infrastructure, as the superior organisation in a ‘two-tier’ system (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2017). 

Relationships between staff and people on probation were not ‘sufficiently protected’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019a, p.9) after services were split. Some staff in Robinson et al.’s (2016, p.167) ethnography of the transition to employment in a CRC reflected on ‘the pains of separation from service users with whom they had built good working relationships but who were now in the process of being transferred to the NPS’. Staff-client relationships were further exacerbated by the financial strains under which CRCs operated. Initial caseload estimates suggested that CRCs would supervise 80 per cent of people on probation, but the reality was closer to 60 per cent – in part because concerns over the CRCs’ quality of services meant fewer were assessed as low-to-medium risk (NAO, 2019). The subsequent funding shortfalls resulted in ‘substantial reductions’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019a, p.74) in staffing in the CRCs. Accordingly, while organisational caseloads decreased, individual workloads increased (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2017). One such implication is a loss of professional autonomy: practitioners in the CRCs were focused on meeting the ‘fee for service’ targets through which providers derived the majority of their income, reducing the time available to build relationships with people on probation (Tidmarsh, 2020b, 2021b).

Relationships with other organisations also deteriorated under Transforming Rehabilitation. HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2017) found that ‘Through the Gate’ provision was over-reliant on signposting to other agencies, particularly in the voluntary sector. Both the NPS and CRCs referred to such agencies, many of whom were external to supply chains, without being financially obligated to contribute to their delivery (NAO, 2019). This disincentivised many smaller voluntary organisations from involvement in probation while entrenching a ‘tick-box culture’ of monitoring (Clinks, 2018, p.24) among those that continued to deliver services, as downward pressures inhibited their ability to build meaningful relationships with clients and partners. The financial instability that characterised partnership working with the voluntary sector demonstrates how Transforming Rehabilitation damaged probation’s function as a ‘broker’ between different social spheres (Senior et al., 2016). Dominey (2019) conceptualises probation relationships through notions of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ supervision: 
• ‘thick’ supervision refers to a productive relationship with the person on probation, embedded within the community 
• ‘thin’ supervision is predominantly office-based, with poor links to the community. 
Dominey concluded that, if probation is underpinned by networks of relationships, both among people and between people and organisations, then the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms pushed supervision in the CRCs ‘in the direction of thin supervision’ (Dominey, 2019, p.298; see also Tidmarsh, 2021b). 

The contractual pressures faced by CRCs thus created barriers to realising an ideology of service in probation. Indeed, the ability to build relationships – with clients and other stakeholders – is at the heart of probation staff understandings of professionalism (Tidmarsh, 2021a). However, both supervisor-client and probation-community relations were diminished nationally as a result of Transforming Rehabilitation (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019a). The practitioners in Tidmarsh’s (2020a) ethnography of a CRC, for example, struggled to reconcile client-centred values with caseload pressures and a heightened focus on performance targets. These ‘thin’ practices also permeated intra-organisation relationships, thereby impacting practitioners’ capacity to develop professionally. Staff in Coley’s (2020, p.237) study of a CRC valued supervision time with Senior Probation Officers; however, the combination of caseload pressures and staff shortages meant that staff supervision time was often ‘compressed, offering less space for individual and personalised activities’. Likewise, in the NPS, Phillips et al. (2016) observed the ‘relentless’ emotional impact of working exclusively with high-risk offenders, for which practitioners did not receive enough organisational support or opportunities to reflect meaningfully on practice. 

As such, Transforming Rehabilitation further undermined the wide range of relationships on which professionalism in probation is founded. Professional knowledge was lost in the CRCs, eroded by an enforced contractual focus on targets. An ideology of service persists within probation, but the convergence of increased workloads and the financial consequences of a failure to conform to performance metrics impeded the autonomy to enact such values. The ways in which Transforming Rehabilitation failed to enhance professionalism in probation raises questions as to how the service can reclaim its ideology of service and the frameworks needed to recapture meaningful relationships with people on probation and other stakeholders. The next section, then, advocates for a relational, person-centred, and co-productive approach to the future of services.

to be continued


  1. It is impossible for probation to be a profession when all it’s practitioners work in the civil service. This means that they cannot engage freely with research and critique current policy. You are not a profession if you cannot freely debate practice, you’re just a bunch of staff blindly following internal dogma.

  2. "Academic Insights", eh? Pity the MoJ doesnt have any, it seems. Either lack the knowledge or the will. Or both, arguably.

  3. seen on muskybird platform:

    @HMIProbation You said in EVERY London PDU: "HMPPS should consider incentives to improve recruitment and retention of staff"


    #MoJ say: "We have recruited a record number of trainee probation officers to keep the public safe..."


    So who is telling the truth? Why is "Leadership" always rated as "Requires Improvement" while Staff are rated "Inadequate"?

    An organisation in crisis needs its senior managers to lead the staff ergo an Overall rating of Inadequate must be indicative of inadequate leadership?

    Seems that the fence-sitter-in-chief, Justin Russell, has once again thrown practitioners under London buses while making exceptions for his chums, those "excellent leaders".

    To avoid the "all toilets smell of fresh paint" syndrome HMIProbation should at least do unannounced field inspections.

    I'd prefer they used a Mystery Shopper device; an unknown variable landing in an office that's devoid of adequate staffing would soon identify the fault lines & expose 'leadership' for what it is/isn't. Could be on either staff-side or client-side (PoP to those who insist on using GovtSpeak).

    1. We have a response from HMI via Twitter:-

      "Thanks for your comment – you’ve raised an interesting point. To clarify, our standards around staff don’t reflect quality of staff but how services are resourced, deployed, trained and engaged with. As leaders create this environment, and context, the rating reflects on them. There's more information about our standards on our website, and here is a link to our PDU standards (staff is section 1, 1.2)."


    2. From Twitter:-

      "I can only value my own integrity. I have for 30years. I challenge when challenge is needed. I have to trust that senior management have probation values and ethics at the fore front of their decision making."

  4. Have I missed something here?

    Ministry of Justice, NOMS and HMPPS decimates probation from Transforming Rehabilitation onwards and removed all professionalism over the past 10 years.

    HMIP Probation confirms decimation of probation in countless inspection reports.

    HMIP Probation generally FAILS to condemn Ministry of Justice, NOMS and HMPPS in countless inspection reports.

    HMIP Probation now publishes research on “Professionalism in Probation” and Transforming Rehabilitation as “undermining”, just as the Probation Service is to be absorbed and led by the prison system as “One HMPPS”.

  5. “enhance professionalism in probation raises questions as to how the service can reclaim its ideology of service and the frameworks needed to recapture meaningful relationships with people on probation”

    … and how exactly will that be achieved while the Probation Service is led by PRISON OFFICERS Amy Rees and Phil Copple?

    1. It won't reclaim professionalism it's new tune and modernised role. Monitoring is the name game when is oldies are gone these complaints will end.

  6. I think this report is very valuable (produced by an academic who has produced some very constructive work in relation to probation) as it adds weight to the arguments for probation to be removed from direct government control and the civil service and for it to be devolved back to trust status. This review of the literature needs to be referenced by all those opposing the governments direction of travel towards assimilation by the prison service under the train trash that will be One HMPPS. Let us hope that the Tory Party do not con the electorate into supporting them at the next election. The Tory Justice ministers have run out of energy and ideas too busy throwing tomatoes 🍅 around. We should be talking to Labour’s shadow justice team about the future of probation and using this report to back up up our arguments and getting some election pledges agreed.

    1. Perhaps HMIP Probation should be talking about the future of probation, and recommending in every inspection report for it to be removed from direct government control and the civil service and for it to be devolved back to trust status, and using this report to back up up it’s arguments. I doubt it will, as hasn’t done so far in the past 10 years of inspection reports.

    2. 08:40 I think by commissioning a report it has done what it can within its remit short of telling the government what it should do -that it cannot. It can only recommend. I’m sure reference will be made by them to their own publications. They are obviously trying to inform and stimulate debate. This is a useful document that can be read by MPs and the Judiciary for example so they can have a good idea what has been going on. It does show you that there are undoubtedly now some well motivated strong minded inspectors who are very keen to say it how it is within the rules.
      There are also friends and supporters of probation in the NAO. If you want change in policy you need to grab them by the place that hurts most. If their plans are starved of cash because the Treasury get the jitters and the NAO are showing a very keen interest in the details of the plans then you can bet Raab will be chucking tomatoes . I have met senior civil servants and some key ones are furious with the government and their treatment of probation staff because it is a huge risk to add to all the other risks. Government policy is to blame for the current state of the criminal justice system. We all have to do our part and support others who are doing what they can within their own restrictions. The current government need to be held to account for their failed policies.

    3. Regardless of all that, probation has been decimated over the past decade. It is delusional to put confidence of saviour in HMIP, Napo or woolly hypocritical academic publications.

  7. From twitter:-

    "We have lost identity, the relationship is the key to this job but sadly targets, high caseloads detract from what should be the sole focus and why we came into job x amount of years ago. Broken beyond repair . As for IPP debacle it’s soul destroying 4 all."

  8. I've previously referred to my disgust with the Probation Inspectorate. The Probation Inspectorate refuses to properly publish and promote it's findings by way of continuing to use labels such as "Inadequate" rather than the more readily understandable figure of a TOTAL PERCENTAGE achieved against Inspectorate ratings. This means a percentage given out of either 24 different criteria or 27 criteria depending on the Probation area inspected. This is absolutely vital as many observers of Probation practice read only the headline, for example "Requires Improvement"or "Inadequate". In this way a less well informed observer of Probation (perhaps a Justice Secretary?) might consider "Inadequate" to be maybe under 40 per cent or under 30 percent or possibly somewhat less...
    The real figures are far far worse with one recent London Inspection being rated as 0 out of 27 or Welsh Inspections that scored 4 out of 27 and another 6 out of 27.

    I can only conclude that the Probation Inspectorate are deliberately creating a smoke screen to hide the true disastrous depth that Probation performance has plunged to. The Probation Inspectorate must improve and honestly reveal the state of play in Probation - frontline Probation Workers know full well just how bad things really are despite their own supreme efforts. Shame on the Inspectorate for it's collusion and weakness in the face of Civil Service and Government pressure.

    1. I think HMIP Probation are saying how bad it is. Read the reports it’s all there. The problem with HMIP is that it does not place responsibility and blame firmly on HMPPS, Ministry of Justice and Government. Instead it blames the Probation practitioner, region and office, and then entire teams suffer from the stigma of negative reports. Take the London inspection reports, we all know it’s a badly managed probation region with many toxic understaffed offices. Probation could have been in a very different place had the Ministry of Justice not dragged probation through the last decade of never ending changes. This is evident in the reports, yet we face more changes under One HMPPS and Amy Rees’ prison governor leadership which is further erasing probation from existence.

      “During the twelve months prior to the announcement of this inspection, 16 per cent of staff had left the PDU. Staff we spoke to described a churn of staff, largely due to workloads or staff leaving for better-paid positions in partner agencies.“ - An inspection of probation services in: Ealing and Hillingdon PDU. The Probation Service – London region.

      “As one probation practitioner pointedly told us “let’s be honest, we don’t know each other’s names let alone those of CRS providers”. - An inspection of probation services in: Lambeth PDU. The Probation Service – London region.

      “Almost all staff felt their workloads were unmanageable which was not surprising given that HFKCW had an overall vacancy rate of 43 per cent. The strategy implemented to try and manage this was complex. This created a sense of anxiety and confusion among staff who, despite best efforts, were struggling to identify what was a priority, and what was not, at any given time.” - An inspection of probation services in: Hammersmith, Fulham, Kensington, Chelsea, and Westminster PDU. The Probation Service – London region.

      “Concerningly, staff reported witnessing incidents of discriminatory behaviour and a lack of professional conduct. Some staff did not feel empowered to challenge or have confidence that concerns would be addressed. While some concerns were shared with managers, the full extent of the experiences of some black staff was not understood.” - An inspection of probation services in: Barking, Dagenham and Havering PDU The Probation Service – London region.

      “Support provided by managers in supervision and other means did not always translate into good frontline practice.” - An inspection of probation services in: Newham PDU. The Probation Service – London region.

      In other news, Ex-transport secretary Chris Grayling just earned £100,840 from outside work, largely from remaining in his £100,000 a year role as adviser to shipping company Hutchison Ports, for which he does seven hours of work a week.


  9. "removed from direct government control and the civil service and for it to be devolved back to trust status"

    With the greatest of respect, that idea can fuck right off.

    "Trust status" was the thin end of the wedge... it was the prising open of the public service provision of probation to allow the reign of allegedly 'indepedent' (aka aligned with the free market) CEO's & their cash-greedy lackeys:

    "The Bill completed its passage through Parliament in July 2007, and the first six probation trusts came into being on 1 April 2008 (Merseyside, South Wales, Humberside, Dyfed/Powys, West Mercia and Leicestershire & Rutland)."

    One observation at the time was that the Trusts (oxymoron) "had more pilots than British Airways"; essentially they were flying publicly-funded kites for NOMS (soon to be HMPPS) to see what would generate statistics to attract the greatest level of public support, aka what would make a healthy profit for an investor from the private sector.

    And that was under a Labour administration.

    "In the 2010 Coalition agreement, the Government said it would introduce a “rehabilitation revolution that will pay independent providers to reduce reoffending”. On 9 May 2013, the MoJ published Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform, announcing its plans to invite providers from the voluntary and private sectors to bid for rehabilitation services... In September 2013, the MoJ invited bids to run 21 CRCs across England and Wales, worth a combined £450 million. The list of new owners of CRCs was released on 18 December 2014. Only one of the CRCs was won by an organisation outside the private sector... Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) produced five reports evaluating the reforms as they progressed. The final report, published in May 2016, found improvements in joint working and communication between the CRCs and the NPS, particularly in dealing with breaches or increased risk of harm However, there were problems with court work, staff training and morale.

    In its thematic inspections, HMIP said that the ‘Through the Gate’ services were so poor that if they were removed the impact would be “negligible”. HMIP also found in a separate report that the reforms had meant services for women offenders were less focused. 

    HMIP began individual area inspections in summer 2016. They have found overall that CRCs are performing below expectations, with particular criticism for some CRCs monitoring offenders by telephone."

    1. It is BEFORE Probation Trust status we need to return to. I think we were called Probation Areas then.

      I remember when we became Probation Trusts and the Chief Officers got all power hungry calling themselves CEO’s and started finding ways to sell off the probation silver.

  10. For probation to regain its professional identity it has to stop having almost everyone who enters the CJS being subjected to the probation experience regardless or not of whether there's any benefit to be gained. People today are funneled through probation because that's just the way it is, how the system is constructed, not because it might benefit them in some way.
    In many respects that echoes the US model of probation, although they define a separation between probation and parole services.
    However, although a different system then ours, it seems that the US is also involved in rediscovering its core values and it's own unique identity.
    The following paper from 2020 can't be completely compared to our system, but many of the arguments about how probation has 'gone wrong' and what it needs to do to rediscover its values and ethos are to my mind very similar to what some would argue needs to change for with the UK model to regain its identity.