The latest (28 November 2022) Academic Insight published by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation makes for interesting reading. Professionalism in Probation, written by Dr Matt Tidmarsh from the University of Leeds reviews the literature on professionalism and applies it to the probation service. He argues that, after years of instability, the recent unification of the service provides an opportunity to refocus on the professional status of practitioners. Both HMPPS and organisations like the Probation Institute are pushing the professionalisation agenda, in the context of a general feeling that probation has lost some of its former status as a career to aspire to.
What is professionalism?
Dr Tidmarsh starts by defining professionalism as a way “to organise practice around the knowledge, expertise, and autonomy of its staff that seeks to build upon an ideology of service premised on relationships with clients and others with a stake in its work”.
He them embarks on a lengthy but fascinating history of the growth of professionalism in probation and the challenges to that professionalism which came both from increasing centralisation and as a consequence of the upheaval of the Transforming Rehabilitation project and its eventual reversal. Along the way, he shares what I found to be a really useful conceptualisation of what I think of as the battle for probation values. This concept, developed by Jane Dominey of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, describes two models of probation supervision – “thick” and “thin”:
- ‘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.
In my recent dealings with different probation services who are struggling from chronic under-staffing, I see many more examples of “thin” supervision.
Dr Tidmarsh goes on to describe the current plans to (re-)professionalise the probation service including the MoJ’s plan to create an independent statutory register for probation professionals which, although announced in 2019, does not appear to have made it very far along the road to implementation yet.
Dr Tidmarsh does see unification as an opportunity and argues strongly for investment in staff and a probation identity and culture which is “relational, collaborative, and, above all, person-centred”. This approach is summarised in the infographic below.
Dr Tidmarsh concludes by arguing that the next version of probation should be built on a commitment to professionalising staff. He also argues that underpinning this professionalism should be a greater focus on the probation service’s relationships with external stakeholders including people on probation, local communities and partner agencies.
It is clear that investment and government commitment to a professional probation service are key if we want a probation model which values a service based on well-trained and supported staff who have the time and autonomy to develop relationships both with the people they supervise and the range of services in local communities which are critical to successful desistance journeys.
The header image is taken from the probation officer recruitment page of the Probation Service website.