Last Thursday (6 February 2020), the probation inspectorate published another in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice.
Authored by Dr Nicola Carr Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Nottingham, where she is the co-director of the Criminal Justice Research Centre, this paper focuses on the recruitment, training and professional development of probation staff.
The report highlights the recent introduction of Council of Europe guidelines covering the recruitment, training and professional development of probation staff. The production of these guidelines, which stress the importance of research-informed and evidence-based practices, is particularly well timed for England and Wales due to the commitment to support a professional workforce in the most recent proposals for probation reform, including plans to develop a professional recognition framework. The guidelines set out the following key principle:
Staffing levels of prison services and probation agencies should be sufficient, especially of staff in daily contact with suspects and offenders. Staff should have a professional status and adequate training which allows them to have a sound understanding of their duties and the ethical requirements of their work. This will enable them to fulfil their everyday tasks and the overall purpose of the services they belong to. Staff should function within the context of high professional ethics based on treating suspects and offenders humanely and with respect for their human dignity.
Probation education and training
The question of what sort of education and training should be provided to probation staff is a topic that has attracted increased attention in many European countries over recent years. Part of this has been driven by the fact that some countries have recently developed their probation services and as part of this process there has been a consideration of the profile and training required for staff to carry out the probation role.
In England and Wales, changes have been made over time to the core training requirements for probation workers. This has been driven in part by an emphasis in the late 1990s on ‘effective practice’ and ‘What Works?’, where it was argued that there should be a shift in training from social work as a core qualification for probation officers towards a more bespoke form of training that paid greater attention to what were deemed to be the core tasks of probation – i.e. reducing reoffending and public protection. To some extent this terrain has shifted again following the insights derived from research on desistance, where the importance of developing personal and social capital in order for people to stop offending has been noted.
The question of the education and training of probation staff is linked to questions regarding broader penal philosophies, the purposes of probation and the orientation of the wider criminal justice system. Clearly the need to have staff of a high professional quality is desirable within any organisation, but what does this mean in practice? The Council of Europe guidelines on recruitment, education and training provide an outline of some key principles and standards in this area.
The European guidelines
The Council of Europe guidelines outline a number of key principles relating to the recruitment, education and training, and professional development of prison and probation staff. There are some areas of commonality in relation to general principles (such as the overall mission of criminal justice agencies), but in recognition of their different duties, the specific education and training requirements for prison and probation staff are dealt with separately within the guidelines. Regarding the entry educational levels for probation staff, the guidelines state the following:
‘For probation staff working directly with suspects or offenders in a supervisory capacity, the starting educational level should be equivalent to Level 6 EQF (European Qualification Framework) and preferably graduates from social sciences, like: psychology, social work, law, criminology or cognate disciplines.’
The EQF provides a framework to compare qualifications awarded in different countries and by different education and training systems. It comprises eight levels with specifications for each of the following learning outcomes: knowledge, skills and competencies. Level 6 of the EQF equates to a degree-level qualification, which requires:
- advanced knowledge of a field of work or study involving a critical understanding of theories and principles;
- 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.
An education and training matrix included in the guidelines provides further detail on some of the key elements required to carry out the probation role. Again, in recognition of the diverse practice and cultural contexts of member states, the areas of education and training specified in the matrix are intended to be indicative rather than prescriptive, but they do provide a sense of the range of skills and training probation staff require. These include areas such as:
- working effectively to promote change;
- promoting compliance and dealing with non-compliance;
- case management;
- report writing;
- programmes and interventions;
- risk assessment; and
- anti-discriminatory practice.
As well as proficiency, the need for staff to understand the evidence base underpinning areas of practice is emphasised. This is particularly important in the area of risk assessment, where any tool should be used to assist professional judgement, rather than to replace it.
Dr Carr concludes by saying that the European guidelines can provide a basis for the government’s plans to create a regulatory framework for establishing new qualification requirements and practice standards for probation staff. We shall have to wait-and-see whether HMPPS take this advice.