Yesterday (12 January 2023) the MoJ published a process evaluation of the probation services officer (PSO) progression pilot. This pilot tested an accelerated 13-month work-based training pathway for existing PSOs, with and without previous Level 5 qualifications (foundation degree or equivalent), with offender manager experience. Those who completed the pathway gained the Professional Qualification in Probation. The pilot ran in 4 probation areas from January 2021 to March 2022.
This report presents findings from the process evaluation of the pilot. which aimed to:
- understand learner and probation stakeholder experiences of the pilot programme
- explore the perceived impact of the pilot on the skills, capabilities and knowledge of learners
- identify potential ways to improve the programme and capture lessons learnt for future implementation
The pilot was relatively small scale (50 places) and readers should be aware that the pandemic and re-unification of the probation service both had some impact. A mixed methods evaluation approach was taken including questionnaires, online surveys and semi-structured interviews and focus groups.
- There were 122 applications for 50 pilot places. Available data highlighted that almost half of the cohort did not hold a Level 5 qualification when they applied for the pilot (45%) or started the pilot (48%, n=24). The average (median) age of applicants, where known, was 38 years, with a range of 22 to 65.
- Of the 50 learners who were offered a place on the pilot, 41 (82%) were known to have completed the programme. This includes 23 of the 26 who held a Level 5 qualification at the start of the pilot, and 18 of the 24 who did not.
- Graduate and non-graduate learners achieved similar grades on average across the Level 5 and Level 6 academic modules of the progression pathway.
You can see the key characteristics of applicants, starters and completers compared to the applicants to the mainstream
The evaluators separated their findings into two main sections:: what was perceived to work well & what was perceived to work less well. The positive findings are set out below:
- Overall experience – most respondents said they were satisfied with their overall experience of the pilot. Most stakeholders also reporting having a positive experience of managing or assessing learners. Probation stakeholders were highly impressed with the capabilities of the pilot cohort, praising them for their dedication, motivation and perseverance through difficult times.
- Academic component – most learners said they felt prepared for the Level 5 and Level 6 assessments. The quality of teaching and support from one of the higher education institutions was commended in particular; it was suggested that some tutors went above and beyond what was expected.
- Vocational Diploma in Probation Practice Level 5 (VQ5) – experiences of the VQ5 were broadly positive, with several learners stating their previous experience as a PSO made it easier to meet the qualification requirements. Some learners identified receiving constructive feedback on their practice as the most useful aspect of the pilot.
- Professional development – the majority of learners agreed that their caseload met their development needs, and most learners and stakeholders were confident that the pilot has prepared learners for the transition to qualified PO. Learners suggested that studying probation theory through the academic component of the pilot, and then applying that learning through the VQ5 and case management, helped to improve their practice.
Issues which worked less well included:
- Timescales – most learners and stakeholders expressed concerns about the compressed timescales of the pilot. There were challenges for learner wellbeing, particularly when learners were completing four or five Level 5 modules. A number of stakeholders also reported that they found the increased time pressure stressful.
- Approach to module delivery – higher education institutions use varying degrees of distance learning during business as usual, however, some components which were previously face-to-face, were moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some learners in one of the pilot’s regions reported they were dissatisfied with the self-taught nature of the academic programme and perceived there to be a lack of support from tutors.
- Workloads and caseloads – there were mixed views reported on the efficacy of learners co-working high risk or complex cases with an experience probation officer and reported challenges with redistributing learners’ PSO caseloads. Some learners felt their caseloads were too high or lacked development opportunities.
- Training – overall it was felt that some of the training the learners were placed on as part of the pilot was unnecessary for experienced PSOs, and there were reported issues with the timing of the training events.
- Preparation for progression – some learners identified specific gaps in their probation knowledge and skills following programme completion, and a small number expressed concern about moving into a PO role with these perceived gaps.
The pilot is currently being repeated although this second iteration of the PSO progression pathway has been extended from 13-15 months to meet some of the concerns outlined above.