Last Friday (30 August 2019), the probation inspectorate published the third in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice.
Authored by Dr. Peter Raynor, a former probation officer, now Emeritus Research Professor in Criminology at Swansea University this paper focuses on supervision skills for probation practitioners.
Peter Raynor starts by reviewing the evidence base which seems clear: when probation staff are trained in core skills, the people they supervise and less likely to re-offend.
The encouraging findings from research on skills and ‘core correctional practices’ have led to a number of initiatives designed either to implement successful training programmes on a wider scale or to advance staff development by adapting the approaches used in research. In England and Wales, the National Offender Management Service (as it was then) developed a scheme to train staff in interviewing skills: the SEED programme (Skills for Effective Engagement and Development, later expanded to SEEDS by the addition of a focus on staff supervision). The staff training was welcomed by participants who were very positive about the focus on skills although there has not been a formal evaluation of the programme yet.
Skills, personal attributes and values
Raynor makes the point that when we talk about ‘using’ skills, this does not usually mean selecting a skill from a behavioural repertoire like selecting the right spanner from a toolbox. What we are really talking about is skilled interviewing and interaction, and this is related to personal attributes and aptitudes. Some people intuitively and spontaneously engage and influence with or without training, but most people can benefit from being more aware of what they are doing in their professional roles, how they impact on others, and what options they have for making their contacts more productive. Analysing recorded interviews with an experienced colleague seems to be one effective way to do this.
Training makes it more likely that people will choose a helpful approach, and for some people this will become something they do without having to think about it. People show natural variations in aptitude but most people can improve. Not everyone will improve to the same extent or maintain the improvement successfully, and some people might improve from a low starting point without reaching a level at which they can be consistently effective, but the message from research is that on average, training initiatives have led to real improvements and have enabled people to exercise a positive influence leading to reduced offending.
As well as personal attributes, people have values and personal commitments to what they want to achieve. These will not always coincide: some people have well developed skills of engagement and influence and use them for anti-social purposes, like confidence tricksters, card sharps and doorstep fraudsters. Readers will easily think of other examples in the public eye. Others have prosocial goals but lack the interpersonal awareness or skills to be as helpful as they want to be. Effective practitioners need skills as well as values and commitment, and now we know more than we used to about the relevance and impact of skills.
Raynor concludes that research give us good reasons to expect that an investment in practitioner skills could, if well managed, have a significant positive effect on the effectiveness of probation services. The research shows that staff who consistently use a wider range of skills, with high levels of both relationship skills and structuring skills, usually help the people they supervise to achieve, on average, lower reconviction rates. In addition, practitioners can be trained to improve the range and level of skills they use in their individual supervision of service users. When practitioners’ views are reported they show that after initial anxieties, attention to skills is usually welcomed. The advantages are clear: improving the effectiveness of staff who are already employed and paid looks like a cost-effective strategy.
However, it also presents challenges to organisations: this type of staff development, which requires staff to take what often feels like a risk by exposing their practice to scrutiny, needs an environment in which staff feel safe, valued and supported by trusted management. It is likely to work best in organisations which are well informed about effective practice and committed to its development, and with practitioners who are resourceful, well informed and creative. There is also evidence that improved skills are more likely to be maintained and used when staff have access to regular supervision by experienced colleagues who have a good understanding of practice skills.
Initiatives and experiments need to be set up in a way which lends itself to evaluation (for example, with appropriate comparison groups and adequate recording of data) so that impacts can be identified and measured. Unfortunately, attention to evaluability has sometimes been missing in probation initiatives in England and Wales, and this means that learning opportunities are lost. In addition, a focus on practitioners’ skills suggests a shift away from managerialist top-down approaches which rely on the elaboration of guidance and procedural requirements. Instead, a full implementation of what we now know about skills would put the trained, skilled and resourceful front-line practitioner where she/he belongs, at the centre of evidence-based effective practice.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use his images which you can find here.