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What do staff think about the (re-)unified probation service?
Matt Tidmarsh's preliminary findings on what probation staff think of the (re-)unified service.

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Mixed feelings

This is a guest post by Matt Tidmarsh (@matt_tidmarsh), sharing preliminary findings from his research with probation staff.

In June 2021, probation in England and Wales was unified, bringing the part-privatisation of services through the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms to an end after just seven years. For the last few months, I have been researching professional identity, culture, and practice in probation since the collapse of TR. I’ve interviewed 38 members of staff from across the probation estate, and what follows presents some preliminary findings from this project.

Feelings on unification are mostly mixed: staff are happy that TR has come to an end but frustrated that so much money was wasted on ideological indulgences. Unfortunately, the ‘two-tier’ nature of TR, in which Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and their staff were viewed as inferior, persists: legacy CRC staff in many regions reported on a perceived ‘second class’ status within the new arrangements. However, many staff also commented on how unification has restored a sense of professional identity, as ‘we’re all one service now’.

Despite general happiness that services are, once again, delivered under the banner of a single, public sector organisation, the sense that probation is not a good fit with the Civil Service is widespread. With TR, there was an obvious ‘bogeyman’ – Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary when the reforms were implemented – on whom to pin frustrations. In the absence of such a figure since unification, a grey, faceless ‘Civil Service bureaucracy’ has come to (partially) occupy this role. Interestingly, many legacy CRC staff argued that they missed the ‘flexibility’ and ‘dynamism’ of working in the private sector.

Pay, though, is the biggest concern for staff. Probation has not had a meaningful pay rise for a decade. There is a fundamental imbalance between the level of remuneration and the social responsibility involved in keeping the public safe. As such, maingrade practitioners often compared themselves to other public sector professionals (police, nurses, etc.); they argued that they were ‘hidden heroes’ who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, only without recognition from the public or in terms of pay. Staff feel overworked, with many expressing the view that it is bad for clients and dangerous for the public. These pressures make both recruitment and retention difficult. Senior management are aware of this issue and are working to fill vacancies, but they cannot ‘magic probation officers out of thin air’.

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Quite a few, often more experienced, staff expressed concerns about newer recruits into the service, along with the quality of the PQiP, although these reservations were not shared by Trainee Probation Officers nor Practice Tutor Assessors. This was tied into calls for a greater diversity of life experience in the service. This includes hiring people with lived experience of the criminal justice system – something that is made more difficult by stringent Civil Service vetting procedures – along with more people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Staff of all genders, length of experience, and pay grades reflected on how the service is too white and too female.

 

The feminisation of probation in recent decades is an interesting and underexplored phenomenon. On why the service has struggled to recruit men, responses can be separated into three: pay, the demography of (social science) courses from which many are recruited, and the ‘caring’ nature of the role. To be clear, I’m not saying that women are prepared to work for less than men; that they’re more suited to probation because ‘caring is a woman’s work’; nor even that feminisation is necessarily a problem. Rather, the need to have an ‘appropriate’ degree for the PQiP has meant a pipeline has been established between it and social sciences courses (like criminology) dominated by women. This, added to poor pay in the service, has meant far more women enter the profession than men.

Professional development beyond the PQiP, however, is not fit for purpose. Mandatory e-learning does not adequately reflect the different learning styles of staff – ironically, something the service prides itself on in its work with people on probation. That said, there was significant evidence of the persistence of ‘probation values’. This is to say that staff continue to be attracted into the profession because of a desire to work with people; to believe that clients can change and help them desist from crime.

The last point should give hope for the future. Many of these issues will take time to fix – one senior manager suggested 3-5 years – but there is a sense among staff, and particularly among senior leaders, that the service is once again moving in the right direction. With yet more political change on the horizon, it is my hope that the uptick in investment in probation we have seen in last couple of years continues and begins to be felt by staff. The people that work in the service are, after all, its most valuable asset.

 

Thanks to Gerd Altmann for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Pixabay.

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